On the farm with Quality Meat Scotland: South Slipperfield

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QMSS_4C South Slipperfield Farm is a farm assured supplier of Scotch Lamb. Run by the Dykes family, it is an upland farm of 1,000 acres situated in the North West corner of the Scottish borders. As well as breeding ponies and sustaining a herd of 75 suckler cows, the farm plays host to a flock of around 1,000 sheep made up of Scottish Blackface, Bluefaced Leicester, Scotch Mule and Texel Cross breeds.  The breed selection is crucial to the terrain and the product the Dykes want to achieve. Their 350 S182_FIELDScottish Blackface ewes are bred or ‘tupped’ with the flock of 40 Bluefaced Leicesters to produce Scotch Mules, a prolific and hardy sheep which is perfectly suited to the environment. Third generation livestock farmer, Hamish Dykes explains: “The Scotch Mule is pretty much the number one cross sheep in the country; there are very few that can match her. She retains the hardiness of her mother and prolificy and the milking ability of the Bluefaced Leicester. She can look after herself; she can produce two lambs and rear them very ably.” The cross breeding doesn’t end there though. The Dykes operate a typical stratified system whereby the Scotch Mules are crossed with Texel rams to produce a fat lamb and a Texel Cross ewe for breeding, some of which are retained and the rest sold as ewe lambs. QMS_Dykes_ARAt this time of year the Dykes are busy finishing the lambs born in the spring ready for slaughter. It is an important and precise process due to the exacting demands of modern customers,especially supermarkets. “The lamb market is very specific at the moment,” says Hamish. “What the processors want is a 21 kg carcass. Supermarket packaging dictates that if the lambs get too big they don’t fit in the packages.” This can even mean penalties for supplying overweight carcasses which means that from mid-July onwards, Hamish goes through his flock checking for and marketing anything that has reached the magic weight. The Dykes supply their lambs mostly to Morrisons, sending around 800 carcasses to be marketed as Scotch Lamb in stores around the country last year. When it comes to slaughter the Dykes eschewed the traditional route through livestock markets a few years ago and now send their lambs directly to the abattoir. This cuts down on the cost of haulage and middlemen but also has a beneficial effect on the welfare of the lambs and the quality of the product. “I wouldn’t say the livestock system causes too much stress,” says Hamish, “but with our system it’s one lorry straight to the abattoir and then they’re slaughtered which is as minimal as it can get. If they’re in the livestock system they’re in a lorry or trailer here, taken to market, chased around numerous pens, then put on another lorry to an abattoir, so yes it is less stressful on the lambs to go direct to the abattoir.” Lambing starts around 20th March and breeding or ‘tupping’ in October. Lambing in Scotland generally starts later than elsewhere in the UK and Scotch Lamb is at its best in the autumn so timing is an important factor. Tupping early ensures better weather for the process but also means earlier lambing and consequently colder weather for the new-borns. Tupping later means better weather for the lambs but worse for the breeding process. “It’s a fine balance with implications at either end,” as Hamish says.QMS_Dykes_AR Something which makes the lambing process easier is the system of scanning which the Dykes use. Ewes are scanned with ultrasound to discover how many lambs they are carrying. Each ewe is then marked accordingly and ewes carrying the same number can be put together and given the same care and feeding programmes. As ewes have only two teats and can therefore only suckle two lambs each, scanning gives an important insight into how to best manage the flock; ewes with only a single lamb can be ‘twinned’ with a lamb from a mother with triplets, ensuring the maximum amount of offspring receive natural feeding. As Hamish says: “Without scanning it would feel like lambing with a blindfold on.” Because the ewes are so prolific however there is always a surplus of lambs which are costly to feed by artificial means. The Dykes hire a milk machine for five weeks every year which cuts down on the labour required but the cost of the powdered milk still makes the process uneconomical compared to natural rearing. If there is a particular abundance of surplus lambs in a year, Hamish will often sell them to nearby farmers who ‘twin’ them onto their own ewes. QMS_Dykes_ARThis year’s lambing was made even more special by the presence of a film crew as BBC2’s Lambing Live programme was filmed at the farm. Although at first tentative about getting involved, the Dykes ended up thoroughly enjoying it. “The lambing live experience for us was just fantastic,” says Hamish. “I couldn’t fault it at any point.” Somewhat surprisingly the filming process also ended up providing an opportunity for introspection. “It was quite a self-reflective process,” says Hamish. “They’d ask us a straightforward, simple question but one you’d never actually thought about before, like:‘What do you like about doing this?’ There were a couple of times where my wife Susie was just about welling up with tears thinking about the questions.” Hamish and Susie live on South Slipperfield farm along with their two children Rosie and Murdo and parents John and Kate. Hamish is slowly taking over the running of the farm from his dad but John is still far from retired, spending much of his time breeding their herd of Highland Ponies. South Slipperfield has been in the family since Hamish’s grandfather bought the land in 1956, farming it from a distance until 1967 when John moved there upon his marriage to Kate. Farming then is in the blood, but what makes the job and the lifestyle so special? “I think it’s the feeling of space,” says Hamish. “The world seems to be getting smaller and the population is getting bigger so just having your own space around you is pretty special. You’re very responsible for all the things you do as well; all the livestock we have are under our watch; we’re responsible for all those animals so that’s quite a grounding experience when you think about it.”
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th July 2014

On the farm with Quality Meat Scotland: South Slipperfield