Celebrating 50 Years of the Lleyn Sheep Society in 2020

History of the Lleyn Sheep Society (Up to 2020)

Written February 2020 as part of the 50th Anniversary

After World War Two in the 1950s and 60’s the Lleyn Sheep was an endangered breed.  A meeting was called in December 1970 to form the Lleyn Sheep Society following the resurgence of the breed in the late 1960’s.  New-found interest following work to pursue the prolific traits of the breed saw numbers on the increase and a market to sell them to.

The initial meeting of about 10 people saw the late Mr TJ Williams elected as chairman with Moses Griffith as temporary secretary and Tom Rees-Roberts as treasurer. Mr Rees-Roberts moved over to the secretary’s role shortly after this.  With no funds, the committee meetings were held at the NAAS Office, Pwllheli and then the members homes were used.  One of the first items, although not officially documented was to organise an annual sale at Gaerwen Mart.  Mr Morgan Evans, the auctioneer very kindly agreed to donate the commission from the sale to the new society to help them move forward.

The first sale saw females selling for £12.50, this looked good when Welsh Halfbreds the same day were making £7.  Prices at the 1972-1973 sales topped at £20, jumping to £33 in 1976.  Then in 1977 ewes topped at £70, this appears to be the year when demand started to outstrip supply as the Lleyn was being noted for her beneficial traits as a breeding ewe.

The society agreed in the first year to allow access to a grading up register to help grow the national flock. This register was only in place for a couple of years, it was closed to help maintain a uniformity in the breed.

The late 1970’s saw the society plagued with complaints from potential customers that sheep forward for the sale were not well matched hence it was decided to put an inspection in place at the society sales.  The late 70’s also saw the introduction of the ewe to ram ratio entry system to control the over-supply of rams at the sales, a system which has been updated but is basically still in place today.

1976 saw Miss Karen Widdecombe take over as secretary, followed by Mr Ifor Roberts in 1977.  Mr Roberts retired due to ill health in 1981 when Mrs Gwenda Roberts became his successor and Gwenda has remained in the role seeing many changes for 39 years as your longest serving secretary.

By 1974, the society had over 20 members with 3,000 sheep.  The membership was £2 per a year.  At the AGM this year it was decided to elect three young farmers who had interest in the breed onto the committee, Mr Wynne Davies our current President was one of these young people.  By 1982 the membership of the society had climbed to 150 and it was now classed as a minority breed rather than a rare breed.

1975 saw promotions ramp up with the Society taking a stand at the Royal Welsh Show.  To promote the prolificacy, milkiness and mothering ability of the Lleyn, three ewes with triplets were displayed on the stand.  The leaflets had to be rationed to very interested parties to ensure they did not run out before the end of the show.  1976 onwards saw adventures to the Royal Show plus various NSA Sheep events including Malvern in 1980.

The Lleyn Sheep Breeding Group was founded in 1978 as Professor Owen alongside a group of founder members set up a nucleus flock at Bangor University.¬† At the time, the group was described as including some of the ‚Äėfounding fathers‚Äô of the society, with each breeder supplying ewes to this flock with the aim to uniform the breed.¬† Ram lambs were given each year by the breeders who in return the following year were given a ram lamb of different breeding to help share blood lines. ¬†However, the nature of selecting was by drawing lots and some felt they drew the short straw. The group was disbanded in the mid 1980‚Äôs with the flock being sold off privately.

The above flocks had been recorded by the MLC (Meat Livestock Commission) as part of a national scheme covering all British breeds.  It involved MLC staff travelling to farms and weighing lambs.  Lleyn faired well in comparison hence thought to be a reason why demand at Gaerwen took off.

1991 saw our current Vice President, John Geldard elected onto the committee.  Along with Eifion and Ann Ellis they built and ran a promotional stand at the Sheep Event at Skipton Mart in 1992.  The aim was to display the commercial advantages of the breed hence with the help of Lionel Organ ewes with Rouge, Bleu Du Maine and Charollais crosses were displayed.  This created a huge talking point both for potential customer but also Society members who now recognised the commercial customer base potential.  A similar task was fulfilled if by accident at the Royal Highland and Royal Shows that year with a ewe purchased in Gaerwen accidently being tupped by a Charolais but proving a fantastic advert for the breed. With Vernon Jones now in the Chair, the Promotions Committee was born.  After the first Promotions Committee Meeting, a request was put forward for a £4000 promotions budget.  There was some resistance, bearing in mind that the Society bank account held a total of £8000 altogether.  The council agreed to back the idea and it is often commented that this was proof of the forward-thinking society.  The pay-off was that membership rose quickly with increased income from ewe lamb registrations hence the £4000 was considered well spent that year.

By 1994, the Society had produced six annual handbooks and now had five affiliated clubs, South Wales, Southern Club, Midlands Club, West Country Club and North & East England Club.  Some of these clubs now ten years old.  This shows the growth outside of North Wales.  Although the Society was riding high with its growth the underlying need to catch the commercial market was already there.

1995-1996 saw the celebration of the 25th Anniversary with membership now at over 400.  The North Wales and Scottish & Borders Clubs were now added plus the first sale at Carlisle.  When setting up the sale at Carlisle, it was agreed the auctioneers would collect commission for the society, another income stream to help fund promotion.  John Geldard remembers how he held his three best tups back for the Carlisle Sale, to his horror he was drawn second to last in the ballot.  His fears were relieved when the three rams sold for 2400gns, 2300gns and 1600gns.

Ram Inspection

In 1990, the Society set up two centres where members could voluntarily bring their rams for inspection, prior to entering them for a sale.  This was done to allow members the advantage of having their stock passed or otherwise before the sale hopefully avoiding any embarrassment of being rejected at the sales venue.  By 1991 following the sales, the decision was made to make ram inspection prior to sales compulsory, any ram not meeting the requirements would not be registered.  This was to help ensure that all rams being sold whether at a sale or privately were of a high quality.  There were mixed feelings from members about this introduction but on a whole most seemed to understand the society’s reasons behind it.  From a practical point of view several inspection centres around the country were offered to enable all members fair access.  To maintain fair level of standards it was decided to appoint a single inspector with a nominated deputy to serve all centres.  H. Vernon Jones and Efion Ellis filled these positions at the start with Nia Williams taking the role for a time.  Arfon Hughes took on the role in 1997 and alongside his wife Sian has been the Ram Inspector for 23 years.

By 1998 as a sign of the spread of the breed the Society was holding four sales a year, Gaerwen, Ross on Wye, Carlisle and NSA Ram Sale - Builth Wells.  The sale at Carlisle went from 555 sheep in 1996 to 3,274 in 1999.

Promotions Officer

The pace and growth of the society meant that work levels in the office had hit a high and there was seen to be a need for a dedicated person to take the reins of managing the promotions hence Debbie Hutchinson (now McGowan) was employed in February 1999 as Society Promotions Officer.  The role involved visiting flocks, compiling articles for the newsletter (Lleyn Times), dealing with the press and manning the Society stand at shows throughout the year.  Debbie reported in her first handbook address that Lleyn had bucked the trend, general sheep sales seemed to have hit rock bottom but Lleyn saw a 99% clearance of females at Carlisle.  Lleyn was not just stirring the UK sheep industry it was rippling waters overseas with orders for Holland, France and the Azores.  Debbie was tasked with attending Balmoral Show to encourage growth of the breed in Northern Ireland.  This helped the Carlisle Sale as it encouraged extra buyers who could easily purchase and take back home on the ferry.  Debbie was heavily involved in getting HRH The Prince of Wales signed up as Patron of the Society as well as bringing Trident on board as sponsors.

With the society finances looking healthy, the council removed sale entry fees to help encourage breeders to support the sales.

Website

By 2000 the word wide web was being widely used for advertising so in 2001, Derek Bond who had a career in software building built the first Lleyn Sheep Society website.  Derek managed the site for a number of years before handing the title of Webmaster over to David Knowles.  Today this is a major part of advertising hence it is now managed daily by your Promotions Officer.

Foot & Mouth

2001 brought the traumatic events of the Foot and Mouth outbreak which meant no sales were held and the society ran a register with Debbie and Gwenda looking to help breeders sell from home using the Society website to advertise.¬† This traumatic event put the Lleyn in the spotlight for many sheep farmers across the UK, the idea of a ‚Äėclosed flock‚Äô was being looked at more seriously.¬† The need for many to re-stock after having their stock culled meant new decisions and new breeds, a place where the Lleyn shone through especially in the hot spot of the North of England.¬† By 2002 after restrictions were lifted the society was holding seven sales, Exeter, Ruthin, Ross on Wye, Perth, Ashford, Builth Wells and Carlisle.¬† The Society membership was now over 500.

Computers

2005 brought positive challenges when membership numbers rose to 750.  This increased the need for modernisation in the office with the development of computerised software to manage registrations over time the accounts moved to Sage.  The Northern Irish formed their club.  Sheep farming had seen some challenging times and now the introduction of the new Single Farm Payment was seeing phrases like squeezing margins and higher labour costs, something the Lleyn Sheep Society could work with in promotion.

The NSA ScotSheep event was held at Poldean by the Davidson Family hence a fantastic advert for the Lleyn and maybe why the northern sales were such a success that year including the new Skipton sale which saw the best trade of the year.  A sale of Lleyn females at Carlisle Mart saw an entry of 363 ewe hoggs and 30 ewes with lambs at foot.  Ewe hoggs topped at £155/head.  Dennis & Ann Ison sold four-year old ewes with lambs to £75/life.

Debbie McGowan retired as Promotions Consultant in 2005, with Sarah Walton stepping into the role.  Debbie held the position for seven years. 

There was a growth in the numbers of Lleyn in Southern Ireland with early flocks of Simon Brown, Robin & David Darker, Peter Shields, Brendan Donnellan and Jim Mason set up and Michael Keegan now purchasing large numbers from UK flocks.

The MLC was disbanded, and the recording database was moved to Signet which changed to a ‚Äúwithin flock‚ÄĚ measurement with data supplied by the breeder.¬† A Sire Reference Scheme was trialled but there were challenges getting the correlations between flocks to be good enough to use.

2006 saw the introduction of the society tag to replace the tattoo format.  This coincided with DEFRA/Government changes hence it was not plane sailing.  The formation of the Breed Development Committee took place with Marcus Bullock leading the charge as Chairman.  Technical topics were now seen as a major section at Council, it was felt it needed a specialist group to look at advising the Council on the work needed to move the breed forward in the right direction.

H. Vernon Jones stood as president for 10 years and retired in 2007 handing the reigns to Nia Williams.  As is often the case, things moved that fast that often the changes were seen as challenging and daunting by the members and officers.  Vernon is well known for dealing with these situations in a way that allowed for everyone to understand.  Vernon was a huge part of the changes and advances of the Society and is seen as a great ambassador for the breed.

The Lleyn Recording Group was formed in 2007 following the award of a ¬£5000 SPARK award initiative which was used to ‚Äėput work into utilising the MLC Signet Breeding Services for the Lleyn‚Äô.¬† This group continues today although is now known at the Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders (PRLB).¬†

It was also another testing year of regulations following another outbreak of Foot and Mouth as well as Blue tongue.  Both affecting the shows and sales.  All society sales went ahead with excellent clearance rates although numbers forward were down.  Some shows were cancelled.  The membership was now over 900.

2008 was a busy year when Promotions Officer Sarah Walton retired.  Highlighting the changes this led the way to an updated role with the new title Promotions and Breed Development Officer which was taken on by Victoria Horton.  Some of Victoria’s first work saw the update of the society website. The Working Committee was given the new title of Council.   Southern Ireland now had enough members and enthusiasm to create their club.  There were 12 society sales across the UK.  In a bid to update the logistics of the society, Gwenda was upgraded to an employee and the society bought a portacabin, which remains the society office today. The society had a total rewrite of the Society constitution, adding Code of Conduct and Disciplinary procedures.  More Blue Tongue and restriction zones were to be worked with.  The Williams Family launched the Gwilym Williams Perpetual Memorial Trophy for the most points in Lleyn classes at the Royal Welsh Show.

2009 saw Northern Ireland Lleyn Breeder Crosby Cleland awarded the Farmers Weekly Sheep farmer of the Year.¬† Hefin Llwyd, a future Breed Development Chairman was a finalist, over the years often Lleyn breeders have been awarded such awards as they are seen as innovative and forward thinking.¬† NSA Welsh Sheep was held at Cernioge Bach, the home of Dewi & Eifion Ellis.¬† The Society held a National Open Day at Duchy Home Farm, Highgrove Estate.¬† Dylan Jones was awarded the NSA Cymru award for the ‚Äėperson under 35 who has made the most significant contribution to the industry.¬† E & D Jones generated a new centre record, selling a shearling ram for 8250gns at the Ross on Wye Sale.¬† It was also a sad year as it was the final English Royal Show.

Around 2009 Seamus Hanrahan, Ireland ran a project through the Society where he collected DNA samples with the help of Arfon & Sian Hughes from 300 rams at Society Ram Inspection Centres.  He used these to locate the unique prolificacy genes FecX(G) and Fec(H).  Both John Adams and Derek Bond have since done much work with this by genotyping their own sheep and studying the possibilities of managing prolificacy.

In 2010 Victoria Horton stood down as Promotions and Breed Development Officer, Heather Stoney, your current Breed Development & Promotions Officer started in May that year and is currently the longest running PBDO after holding the role for 10 years.

By 2011 there were 13 Society Sales.  The modern Social Media world was in full swing with the society now owner to a Twitter account.  2015 saw the further addition of a Facebook Page.

Record Breakers 

New records were generated in the sale ring, 2011 saw DN Bennett & Son sell Plasucha Prince of Powys at Carlisle for 18,000gns.  The following year saw E & D Jones, Machynlleth match this record also at Carlisle.  To date this price remains the highest at a Society sale.

The year of 2012 saw a couple of big changes.  Firstly the office moved over to the Grassroots and Pediweb software this enabled the society to offer members the online Flock Book & Registry.  In the same year the AGM Weekend was held in Stratford Upon Avon, the first time it has ever being away from the Lleyn Peninsula.  Since then it has been held in Stratford, Kendal, Aberystwyth, Devon, Ripon, Falkirk, Northern Ireland, Portsmouth, with it being held back in North Wales at Caernarfon for the 50th Anniversary this year.

2012 also saw Neil Perkins flying the flag being awarded Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year and to really shout for Lleyn, Duncan Nelless was also a finalist that year.

By 2013 there were 16 Society Sale dates across the UK including Northern Ireland and also Southern Ireland.

2014 saw the Lleyn venture onto a new stage by holding the National Lleyn Sheep Competition at the Livestock Event held at the NEC, Birmingham.  Fundamentally it had been the Dairy Event which was looking to regenerate to all livestock.  With a handful of sheep breeds participating, the Lleyn took centre stage.  The competition which included club rivalry ran for three years before the plug was pulled on the Livestock Event itself.  The same year saw the Society update the website to the version you know today.

With indifferent feelings towards the Signet Recording Scheme, in 2015 the Society Breed Development Committee encouraged the Council to launch the LLEYN GOLD Scheme which remains in place today.  It is a ewe performance scheme which has been set up to help breeders improve their flock efficiency by measuring ratio of lambs to ewe weight with medium sized ewes rearing twins finding favour within the results.  The Breed Development Committee also took steps in 2016 to embark on a three year project with Cardiff University to look at the maternal traits of the Lleyn and to see if milkiness can be selected for using genotypes.  It is hoped results of this project undertaken by student Jody Edmunds will be available later this year.  The other momentous occasion which affected everyone was the country voted to leave EU hence the mayhem of BREXIT began.

2017 saw the sad loss of Society President Nia Williams, after a period of illness.  Nia had held the position for 10 years and was very much recognised for her dedication to the administration of the society possessing a wealth of knowledge and historical paperwork.  She was a formidable character who ensured the job got done, properly. Nia was also a great friend.  The AGM that year saw Mr Wynne Davies, our current President elected into the role.

2018 saw continued uncertainty within the industry with the on-going BREXIT Saga.  This also saw much upheaval and extra paperwork generated by the chaos of GDPR (Data Protection Rules).  The Society began to look at offering members a Ram DNA (Genotype) service.  2018 saw a trial scheme run amongst Breed Development members before being rolled out to all members in 2019.  It allowed for rams to have the DNA collected by nasal swab at the ram inspection for the DNA to be stored for future reference or use in projects whilst breeders received the scrapie, myostatin and prolificacy gene status back.  Continued evidence that as over previous years the Lleyn Sheep Society looks to make sure its members are kitted out with the most up to date tools to enable progress.

Over the years there has been a change in the size and scale of the Lleyn sheep.  Through commercial demand she has gone from a small to medium sized ewe to a medium sized ewe.  This has seen resistance from some quarters whilst other breeders have embraced this much more easily.  As the breed is so versatile in general it has been able to cater for most desires.

Strong governance of the society over the years has put the society in a strong position.  Only in 2012 did the AHDB survey show that the Lleyn breed was now one of the most popular breeds in the UK, noting that in the 1971 survey they reported 7,000 Lleyn ewes compared to 474,000 in 2012.  The society remains in a strong position able to provide a robust service for the members going forward.

Written by Heather Stoney-Grayshon, Promotions Officer

Thank you to John Geldard & Derek Bond plus Society Officers for their assistance and knowledge