Lleyn sheep are now more commonplace

Lleyn ewes and lambs enjoying the spring sunshine.
Lleyn ewes and lambs enjoying the spring sunshine.

Lleyn sheep may not be the biggest or the showiest of breeds, but, these increasingly popular sheep, which in the 1970’s were classified a rare breed, are now common place on upland and lowground units alike, as flockmasters are forced to continually cut costs to make ends meet.

And, as Article 50 has now been triggered and there is a likelihood that Basic Farm Payments will be reduced if not phased out completely, we could see an ever increasing number of these white Welsh sheep adorn our landscape in the years to come.

“The Lleyn is the breed that produces the greatest net margin on our land, and it’s the one that is most likely to leave a profit without subsidies,” said Duncan Allison, who farms in partnership with his mother Nancy at Anston farm, Dunsyre, Lanarkshire.

“Lleyn ewes can raise lambs 1.5 - two times their own weight on poor ground, without any hard feeding. The lambs can be finished off grass well before Christmas to weights of 38-42kg producing R3 grades and better. They’re also so easy to manage - we don’t keep sheep, they keep us,” added Duncan, who gave up every man’s dream job, test driving various cars on race tracks throughout Europe, to come home and work on this 1600-acre tenanted hill farm on the Lee & Carnwath Estate in 2002, two years after the death of his father, James Allison.

It was James who instigated the introduction of Lleyn to Anston, in 1984, when Lleyn were still classified a rare breed. That year, in a bid to curtail input costs within his then relatively intensive commercial sheep flock, he travelled to Oban Market to buy a consignment of 40 being sold off the Isle of Coll.  Prior to that date, this cold, wet hill unit which sits at 950-1300ft and comprises 1200 acres of heather hill ground, 150 acres of bog and 250 acres of ploughable land, was home to 600 Blackface ewes, a 160 Mule ewe flock, 60 suckler cows, and a small herd of Welsh Blacks.

However, such were the costs and time involved in managing a Mule ewe flock crossed to Suffolk and Texel rams, that the Allisons were continually looking for something else to replace their “hungry females.” Consequently, alongside the purchased Lleyn and pedigree rams from the Lawrence family of Blackpotts, Aughnagatt, they also bought Shetland ewes.

Nancy added: “We had Lleyn and Shetland cross Lleyn for a while and they thrived. Even the cross-breds could rear up to twice their weight in lambs and that was without feeding in the winter.

“Lleyn are just so much easier kept and managed. When we had Mules, we had a full-time shepherd and we were forever feeding them during the winter and the spring.

“I know we got scanned lambing percentages of 200% with the Mules, but their costs of production were so much higher, especially when we were lambing them inside.  

“Lleyn eat so much less yet they produce the same weight and grade of carcase as Mules without the labour costs. They also lamb themselves and the lambs are quick to get to their feet and suck.”

Such has been the success of the Lleyn at Anston over the past 25 years, that the duo now farm 1000 ewes, including 600 pure Lleyn run on the low ground, 160 of which are pedigree, and 400 Blackies on the hill, with 100 beef cows adding to the overall income.

All ewes are lambed outside with little if any feeding, only supplementary blocks from January to February depending on the weather, and as a result, no full-time staff are employed. Instead, the mother and son team attend to all the work between them with assistance only brought in at clipping and dipping times. A local man is also employed for a couple of hours a day at lambing time to feed the cattle.

Contrary to widespread belief, they are not inundated with huge multiple births either, although they do point out Lleyn are capable of nursing threes with creep feed required to finish them. On average, they say their Lleyn produce lambing percentages of 180, with very few loses, with about 10% producing triplets and 15% with singles.

Hogs are also lambed, which yield 70% lamb crops while most draft age ewes are kept up to another three years and still produce twins on a regular basis. Any ewes that do cause problems at lambing time are culled.  Nevertheless, they warn grass intakes have to be restricted at flushing time to keep lambing percentages at a manageable level.  

“You’ve got to be hard on Lleyn on the run up to tupping. If you flush them at all you can end up with fives,” added Duncan, who winters up to 300 of the Lleyn ewes on grass only at the neighbouring dairy unit to conserve grass at home for the April outdoor lambing.

While the Lleyn at Anston have been upgraded over the years, the decision to establish a nucleus pedigree flock - to produce home-bred stock rams - also allowed the Allisons to sell pedigree Lleyn at shows and sales up and down the country. And, having built up flock numbers to their current level, the flock has been able to reap the rewards of selective pedigree breeding as they regularly sell at Lleyn sales throughout the country.

The majority of purebred rams retained are retained at home for use on the commercial ewes. Some are sold as shearling rams at Society sales, Kelso and privately.  “We look for good long stock tups with a good top line, tight skin, and rams that are finer boned with narrow shoulders, and a long neck for easier lambing,” said Duncan.  

“We do want a carcase and back end, but we’ve always concentrated on the traditional traits of the breed, motherability, milkiness and hardiness, which work best here. Bigger, stronger tups don’t necessarily produce bigger, heavier lambs with ease of lambing. However, Lleyn ewes do offer the opportunity to produce lambs from a terminal sire.”

Outwith the sheep enterprise, Nancy, Duncan and his wife Carrie also have a pedigree herd of 30 Beef Shorthorn cattle and 70 commercial suckler cows to attend to, which includes the growth and management of 40 acres of whole crop barley, 60 acres of silage, and this year 10 acres of forage rape. But, it’s the Lleyn that the family prefer most, but then who wouldn’t when they require so few inputs and only minimal assistance, and yet they’re still able to pay a handsome dividend at the end of the day.