Hampshire Down rams are successfully demonstrating that they not only consistently produce first to finish lambs on intensive lowland systems, but can also work on exposed, low input Scottish hill farms, says Janet Hill, who has used Hampshire Down rams on her commercial flock of Lleyn ewes for almost 10 years, taking advantage of their hardy native traits.

“Our Hampshire Down cross Lleyn lambs combine hardiness with performance – from lambing outdoors to finishing off grass on hard hill ground to 19kg target weight and hitting spec for conformation,” explains Janet who together with her husband, Brian manages Plan Farm, a 1600-acre LFA island unit on the southern tip of Bute.

“Furthermore, the Hampshire Down rams are here to work and are demonstrating that they were bred to survive and thrive. We have rams going out this season in their fifth year, fit and well and ready to cover up to 80 ewes each – any they’ll only get 21 days to complete the job.

“In fact, the Hampshire Down has been amongst the key inputs helping us to continually reduce costs, improve the flock’s productivity and farm more efficiently which is hugely important for all island farms because of the extra costs of buying in inputs from the mainland and also the increased costs of transport to haul stock off to markets.

“We are farming an exposed windward facing coastal unit, with an average 50 inches rainfall and thin soils. However, our environment is not too dissimilar to the South Downs where the breed evolved over 150 years ago. Then its main role was to produce fast finishing prime lamb off sparse grassland in strict rotational systems. Flocks were large amounting to more than 1000 ewes, lambed outdoors and managed by one shepherd consequently, ease of lambing and hardiness was essential.

“Whilst retaining those native characteristics, thanks to ongoing genetic improvements in breeding selection, today’s modern Hampshire Down is longer, it has a larger carcase, and leaves lambs consistently demonstrating higher growth rates with leaner conformation together with more measurable muscle.”

Since moving to Plan Farm over 20 years ago, the Hills have completely transformed what was a traditional sheep enterprise, nowadays complemented with a 120-cow Luing suckler herd, a portion of which are crossed to the South Devon bull to produce high health, milky and docile heifer replacements for sale. “Our whole ethos across cattle and sheep is to match the animals to the land and our use of 100% native breeds who forage and survive on an outdoor system is working.” says Janet.

They decided to swap the traditional three-tier breeds system for the Lleyn which has enabled them to develop a high health closed flock selected for maternal traits, and reduce ewe numbers from more than 1000 to the current 500 producing the same number of lambs.

“We decided to add further value by introducing a terminal sire to cross to any lower performing ewes and finish the lambs; the Hampshire Down was our choice for its hardiness and survivability on an island farm with poorer quality grazing. The decision paid off.

“I have been so thrilled by our Hampshire Down cross lamb performance because they really are suited to our low input system lambing outdoors in April. They require minimal intervention at birth, new born lambs really do have that get up and go, they suck immediately and their thick tight skins lend hardiness. Ewes with singles go out to the hill within two weeks of birth, whilst the twins stay in-bye until weaning at the end of July.”

Establishing a registered pure-bred flock was the next progression at Plan Farm. Five years ago, the Hills decided to breed their own terminal sires and have developed the Isle Of Bute flock which has since grown to 40 ewes.

“We are driven by quality; until now we have sent the majority of our male lambs to the butcher, keeping only the very best for our own needs, but now we are on the cusp of delivering for the commercial market too. We have selected for muscle and tight skins; we use EBVs for gigot and muscle depth but really only take the figures seriously if they have an accuracy rating of 78% or more. When selecting a new sire, I look for one with CT results and high accuracy values. Good skins are also important. We cull very hard.”

Whilst the pedigree flock lambs indoors in December, Janet says ewes and lambs are turned outdoors within a couple of days and introduced to a low input management regime, similar to the commercial Lleyn flock. All surplus lambs are finished off grass and sold to a local butcher.

Janet has adopted less of a hands-on roll in the last 12 months since being appointed secretary of the Hampshire Down Sheep Breeders’ Association. “Whilst day to day shepherding is carried out by Chloe Malcolm, I’m continuing to manage our flocks’ record keeping and performance recording; I am convinced of the value of using data, along-side good old fashioned shepherding and sound stockmanship,” she says adding: “The appointment comes at an exciting time for the breed.

“An uncertain future for agriculture heralds the need to change and adapt in order to succeed, and making one simple single change of terminal sire can have a massive impact on a flock’s output and efficiency. I know from our own farming experience that introducing carefully selected conformationally correct performance recorded Hampshire Down rams can help all producers, regardless of enterprise type or location.”