A love of sheep and cattle and sheer determination to overcome severe injuries following a motor accident helped a North Wales farmer's son overcome his injuries and brought a profitable new dimension to the family's farming system.
It all happened by accident. Well at least it was a serious motor accident that led to far reaching changes for a North Wales farming family and their farming system. For once the Blues played a key part in helping a family member recover from severe injuries and brought a new dimension to the family farming business.
The story goes back seven years to shortly after Iwan Hughes of Ty Cerrig, Garndolbenmaen, Porthmadog, had returned home from a few months driving combine harvesters in the United States. ¬†Then aged 23, Iwan was involved in a motor accident near his home that left him with severe injuries, including head injuries. Iwan had always been interested in sheep, especially trimming and preparing them for local exhibitors at shows and sales.
A telephone conversation between his parents, Arfon and Sian , and their Scottish friend, David Alexander, led to the arrival in 2002 of a Blue Texel ram lamb from David's Millside flock. ¬†The idea was that this would give a new interest for Iwan and that the Blue Texel, being a docile breed, would be easy to handle, even from a wheelchair. The ram lamb was soon joined by some registered females, and Blue Texels became an established part of the Ty Cerrig system
The sheep occupational therapy was a major success and the Blue Texel ram lamb prepared by Iwan went on to be shown successfully. It was a natural progression to try using the Blue Texel as a terminal meat sire on some of the older Lleyn ewes - a cross that has proven a major success at Ty Cerrig. ¬†Sian , who is a nursing sister with a local medical practice, said: "There is absolutely no doubt that it was Iwan's interest in sheep and cattle that helped him recover from his injuries."
The family moved from a smallholding near Caernarfon to Ty Cerrig ten years ago. Ty Cerrig covers 144 acres of wet land, all classified as SDA (Severely Disadvantaged). Additional land has been added bringing the total acreage farmed to 200. The farm lies around the 400ft-600ft contours and is extremely exposed to winds from virtually all directions.
Extensive pasture renewal work using clover rich mixes has been carried out, including drainage works. Drainage work finished when the farm came under the Tir Gofal environmental scheme, and Ty Cerrig completed conversion to organic status two years ago.
The farm now runs 340 Lleyn breeding females, including ewe lambs, a flock of 10 Blue Texels and about 20 Salers spring calving cows put to a Charolais bull for suckled calf production. Foundation stock for both the Lleyns and Salers were brought from the original smallholding. ¬†Arfon said: "This is a very cold, wet farm, which means we house all the cattle during the winter period and our ewe lambs are away wintered on a Pembrokeshire organic dairy farm. Our former smallholding was on better land and more sheltered. The change has meant that we now have a slightly smaller type of Lleyn, better suited to the harder conditions at Ty Cerrig. ¬†"Conditions here have always limited the choice of crossing rams we can use on our older ewes. Simply we have to have lambs that have sufficient wool and are hardy enough to thrive on this farm. The Blue Texels came here to help Iwan recover from his injuries and for no other reason. However they have gone on to prove an ideal cross on the Lleyn and are now used on all our four and five year old Lleyn ewes.
"The Lleyn has always served us well. We started after I went to Gaerwen market to buy some females and there happened to be a Lleyn sale. I bought 15 Lleyn ewe lambs and we developed the flock from there. The Lleyn is an exceptional dam breed bringing together strong maternal characters and longevity and the Blue Texel is a particularly good match as a terminal meat sire on the Lleyn.
"The Blue Texel cross bred lambs have relatively small heads making for easy lambing, and we are finding that the Blue Texel cross Lleyn lambs are ready for slaughter up to six weeks ahead of pure Lleyn lambs born at the same time and on exactly the same management systems. They are also well able to cope with the hard conditions on this farm. ¬†"In both cases we aim to sell deadweight at 18-22kg carcase weights with the Lleyn grading mainly R and the Blue Texel crosses producing a much higher proportion of E and U grades. As well as any financial benefits, the earlier finishing also gives us a wider spread of lamb sales.
"The Blue Texel cross lambs, can be deceptive appearing little different in weight from equivalent pure Lleyn lambs, but as soon as you pick them up you realise that the Blue Texel cross is a much more solid lamb. The vast majority of our Blue Texel cross Lleyn lambs are white. ¬†"In terms of lambing percentages, we normally scan at about 190 per cent of ewes put to the tup, and expect about 175 per cent based on lambs sold. This again suits conditions on this farm." ¬†Sian added: "We lamb all our ewes indoors and I use my nursing training to keep management and hygiene levels as high as possible. I have also developed a scoring system from one to five for lambing and other problems. This is applied to every breeding ewe with one being for the least problems and five being for the greatest problems.
"Any ewe scoring more than two is put in a separate group from the main flock and will be sold through the fat ring - never for breeding. This has meant that we now have very few lambing problems.
"The pedigree Blue Texel flock lambed without any need for assistance. It will never be a big flock, though, personally, I would like to build it up to about 30 sheep." ¬†Arfon is a founder member of a Lleyn breeding group gathering and using performance figures. These figures are being used to aid the selection of the highest index rams to improve the conformation of wether lambs.
He is also the ram inspector for the Lleyn Sheep Society and a breed judge, having placed Lleyns at the Royal and Royal Welsh Shows. He believes that while it is important to maintain and develop breed characteristics, it is equally important to produce lambs that are in demand by commercial buyers.
Looking forward, Arfon and Sian believe the present sheep system works well and see no reason to change. Arfon's ram inspection duties mean he can be away from home for up to six weeks, so it is important that the system is easy for Iwan to manage on his own. Iwan is also keen to retain some Blue Texel cross Lleyn ewe lambs to try as commercial breeding animals. ¬†Arfon said: "Lleyns will always be the main enterprise on our farm, but the 'accidental' arrival of the Blue Texel in 2002 has proved a real bonus. The use of the Blue Texel tup on our older Lleyn ewes has brought us real financial benefits while maintaining an easily managed sheep system to take us forward."