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Verwill Farm

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Meet the farmers

We are new to farming. We may not even be qualified to call ourselves ‘farmers’ yet. Indeed, what is a farmer? Or are we smallholders? It is said there are two ways into farming: be born into it or marry into it. Aspiring farmers who don’t meet that description need to find a more circuitous route towards the land, and our journey is probably more meandering than most.

When we first arrived in Exmoor we heard the term ‘hobby farmer’, which was meant pejoratively as describing an outsider who buys a farm to dabble, but does not earn income from it. As a recent survey showed that most upland farmers survive only because of their subsidy income, it could be said that we are all hobby farmers, in a way. Although a hobby is something you can take or leave any day, like fly fishing or wood carving. But keeping sheep isn’t like a hobby, as it calls on your attention regardless of how you would like it to fit in with your other commitments. Whatever the weather, however urgent other tasks may be, looking after the livestock always comes first. Which makes it sound like a job, but it is so poorly paid that perhaps it is best to call it a lifestyle. With the exception of the very wealthy landowners, most livestock keepers are really ‘lifestyle farmers’, because they (we) attach more importance to how we live than how much we earn.

We didn’t expect to become farmers when we bought the farm. After varied careers, most recently as international development specialists living in southeast Asia, we wanted to return to the UK and find a place where we could continue our professional lives whilst spending at least half our day outdoors. So we find ourselves on a farm in Exmoor National Park, in one of the most stunning landscapes in the country, chasing after sheep.

We did not originally intend to get sheep. We thought we would be doing a sort of rewilding project, planting trees indiscriminately and pretending to be solving the climate crisis. But then we saw how the sheep (and the cattle) are intertwined with the landscape. Yes, my ecologist friends remind me that sheep are an import from Mesopotamia, but it seems absurd to ignore 5,000 years of domestication and selective breeding in order to claim that sheep are an invasive species. By that reasoning we would also need to deplore the presence of dogs, cats, hamsters and gerbils. In this landscape, sheep have been a presence for a long time, and when you try to manage permanent pasture without livestock the landscape changes quite quickly, not necessarily for the better (but that will be the subject of future blog posts, as it’s a complicated subject).

One day, almost accidentally, we found that we owned some sheep. We attended a sheep keeping course with the redoubtable Gillian Dixon, arranged through Devon Association of Smallholders. Since then, we have learned as we go along. The primary objective has always been to maximise the welfare of the livestock, which is why we are certified organic. The advantage of knowing very little about something is that one is not afraid to ask questions. So we question everything: why do farmers dock lamb’s tails? how necessary is it to castrate rams? Why shouldn’t sheep live longer than six months? Where did the tradition of eating lamb at easter come from (spoiler alert: it’s not a tradition)? By asking questions, reading widely and having the humility to learn from lifelong farmers (such as the legendary Chris Dapling), we have begun to formulate our own way of farming. This needs to sit well with our ethos towards nature, nutrition and serving a cause greater than ourselves. All these themes will be explored on our blog, when we find the time to write it down!


Is it hogget, mutton or mogget?

Recently a customer asked me why the hogget he had ordered was labelled as ‘mutton’ on each package. He wondered (understandably) if we had sent him the wrong box. This led me to think about what we really mean by the terms ‘hogget’ and ‘mutton’, how our butcher defines them and what is most important for ordering and cooking our meat.

Definitions of these terms vary around the country, and have meant different things at different times through history. Even ‘lamb’ is a contested word. However, we don’t sell any lamb, as we think the sheep deserve a bit more time living care free on the farm, and – more importantly – we believe that meat from hogget or mutton is a much more deserving of a place at our (and your) table.

And here we enter the ambiguous world of descriptions.  Bob Kennard’s book, ‘Much Ado About Mutton’ (which I recommend) explains that until fairly recently lambs reared during the summer became mutton after Christmas, so when they were just 9 months old. But convention now has it that a lamb becomes a hogget after first shearing (about 15 months old), and then mutton sometime between year 2 and 3.  In some places, only culled ewes can be regarded as mutton, and ram lambs are forever hogget. Kennard reckons the deeper, more complex flavour of mutton does not start until the animal is about four years old.  It seems that different parts of the country have different traditions on describing lamb, hogget or mutton.

Because we have full traceability for all our meat, we know exactly the age of any animal that we process and pack for you. Generally speaking, a fit male sheep over 16 months old that has never worked we class as hogget, by the fact of no longer being a lamb, but not yet being what customers would expect from mutton. But what do people ‘expect’ from mutton? The perception of mutton is that it is meat from an older ewe, which has been culled for being no longer productive, or no longer able to consume enough grass to keep in a fit condition to produce lambs. Some farms cull ewes simply because they tend to produce single lambs instead of twins, or because the ewe was a bit awkward to deal with. It won’t surprise you to learn that we hardly ever cull ewes, as we feel they have earned the right to a gentle retirement on the farm (we may cull young ewes, that for various reasons cannot produce lambs). Which means we very rarely have the true ‘cull ewe’ mutton meat to sell.

Regardless of what we may want to call it, the label could say ‘lamb’, ‘hogget’ or ‘mutton’ depending on how the butcher set up the printer that morning. Some butchers prefer to use ‘lamb’ as a generic description of meat from any kind of sheep, whilst others think the meat is either lamb or mutton, having no time for ambiguous terms like ‘hogget’.

So, if you buy hogget from us, what are you getting? We do not want to be in the position of killing sheep earlier then necessary, just to meet an arbitrary cut-off date of when they transform from hogget to mutton (or to make labelling easier for our butcher).  Therefore, we class hogget as anything up to about 40 months old, which seems to work well for us. Not what some butchers would call hogget, but not really mutton either. Perhaps ‘mogget’ is a better description, but I doubt that will catch on.


On the hoof: Which food miles matter?

The food sector in the UK has become increasingly concentrated, with complex supply chains servicing supermarkets, retailers and food outlets.  This has severed our relationship with where our food comes from. Even if we read the label, it may not tell the whole story. For instance, some supermarkets centralise all their meat processing, so farmers are compelled to transport their animals long distances to the an industrial abattoir far from home.  In most cases, the transport is carried out by hauliers in huge livestock trucks.  This is stressful for the animals, as they are usually in a confined space, separated from their flock, for several hours.  When they get to the large abattoir, they will be offloaded into the ‘layerage’ area, where they will be kept for as long as it takes for each animal to be led into the slaughter room.  It need not be this way.

Some specialist abattoirs and butchers have managed to keep their businesses open, despite the competition from the large and powerful industrial slaughter houses.  They provide an essential service to small farms like ours (and to larger ones, too), who want to ensure our animals are treated with respect and care.  The covid-19 pandemic has shown how important local supply chains are, compared to the vulnerability of the large food companies. 

The most important journey is the one from the farm to the abattoir.  In our case, that is a ten minute drive down the hill, so the sheep barely notice they have been moved.  We unload the sheep and lead them into the layerage area ourselves, and if we wanted to we could witness the whole process.  We are fortunate that the abattoir is run by local people, who are farmers themselves and understand our need for our sheep to be treated with respect.  As a small abattoir, they can ensure full traceability, which is especially important in an organic system.  They can also give us the skins for us to take away for curing, a service that would be most unlikely in a large abattoir.  

Therefore the journey from our farm to your plate is not the most important one.  It is the quality of the journey ‘down the hill’ from the farm to the abattoir which reveals how a farm really cares for its animals.  This is never to be taken lightly, nor dulled by routine.  Every time we take sheep down the hill, our respect for the animal is exemplified in these final minutes. 

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