With a full-time job as a local authority land agent, Rhys Davies needs to keep his sheep flock as easy to manage as possible. Equally, he does not want to compromise on quality and believes strongly in the value of figures offered by a leading flock recording scheme.
He says that such records are increasingly in demand from both pedigree and commercial buyers of breeding sheep, but should not be used in isolation and must be linked to visual inspection of the sheep.
Rhys farms within a family partnership at Pen y Bwlch, Groes, near Denbigh - an owner-occupied smallholding with a mix of owned and rented land totalling around 50 acres of mostly sloping land. His parents came to the farm 30 years ago.
The farm is set on the edge of the Denbighshire moors with land rising from 400 to 700 ft above sea level. Annual rainfall is around the 40 inches mark. Virtually all the land is down to grass. The grass is a mix of permanent grazings and long term leys with a little arable silage grown largely as an entry for reseeding of grass. Efforts are being made to build up the clover content of the swards. Stock are 30 head of suckler and finishing beef cattle plus 90 Lleyn ewes and 60 ewe lambs.
After qualifying at Harper Adams University College , Rhys' career has taken him via a Welshpool auctioneering company, to the National Trust and on to his present post with Flintshire County Council, looking after its smallholdings estate. In 2008 he took a Nuffield Scholarship looking at beef and sheep production in South America , New Zealand and Eastern Europe .
Since the family came to the farm, it has always been run on a part time basis with Rhys' father, Robin, combining it with forestry and other contracting work. The present system goes back to 2000. At that time, the farm was running a flock of Welsh Mule breeding ewes put to Suffolk and Charollais tups for prime lamb production.
"We wanted something easier to manage, and something with a little more challenge than just producing lambs for slaughter. We also wanted to be able to breed our own replacements and, by establishing a pedigree flock, would hopefully get a little better return from breeding stock sales than from lambs for slaughter."
"This is an upland farm, so we needed a breed that was hardy and that would ideally lamb around 200 per cent with little need for assistance. Having worked in the livestock market at Welshpool, I saw that the type of lamb that everyone wanted was around 38-42 kg liveweight. That meant we needed a breed that could produce these lambs quickly off grass and in an upland situation."
"One of the problems with our lambs bred from Welsh Mules was that they could achieve this, but very quickly became too heavy if kept after reaching these weights. Â We looked at a number of breeds, but all except the Lleyn seemed to have some drawback for our purposes. In addition my uncle had run Lleyn for some time, and while at college I had experience on a farm where Lleyn were kept under mountain conditions," he said.
"The net result was we went to Gaerwen to buy the foundation stock for our new Lleyn flock. Our first full year was disrupted by movement restrictions due to the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak. These included having to lamb sheep on a small block of land away from the farm because they could not be moved. One thing this highlighted was the easy lambing ability of the Lleyn."Â "Our breeding programme was also disrupted last year by movement restrictions due to the 2007 Foot and Mouth outbreaks as one of our key stock rams was unable to leave a breeding centre until clearance was given."
"Our breeding system is straightforward. We pregnancy scan, with those ewes carrying multiple lambs being separated for additional feeding if necessary, and those with singles getting no additional feeding. Lambing is outside in April."
"Our main market is for breeding sheep, sold mostly through the Society's Ruthin Sale but also privately. Lambs not selected as potential breeding stock are finished at about 50 kg live, usually from around mid-November onwards, and, as far as possible, sold direct to the public." Â "The flock has been Signet recorded for four years, which has proved invaluable both for our own breeding and for sales of breeding sheep. Interestingly some Lleyn ewes have been viewed as a little small for modern needs, but we have found that some of these smaller ewes have consistently produced top quality lambs. As a member of the Llywio Lleyn Sire Reference Group, one of our home bred rams was used as the sire reference ram in 2007."
Stock rams"Figures are important to our breeding, but, as I learned while working in the auction mart, appearance is also important in selling stock. Therefore, our breeding aims to bring together both attributes," said Rhys.
"In New Zealand I was interested to see their breeding schemes. They are dealing with much bigger numbers than here, with flocks of 4,000-5,000 ewes commonplace. This clearly showed me the importance of links between sire reference recording flocks in UK breeding schemes where flocks are much smaller."
"Like at home, there is falling demand for lamb roasts and the New Zealanders are looking at butchery using seaming techniques to give boneless cuts. They have found that a slightly larger lamb carcase than we have previously produced, about 27 kg, is best suited to these techniques, Maybe this is something we must consider for the future," he said.