Carole Youngs tells Debbie Kingsley about the Hampshire Down sheep she keeps in France
Carole Youngs’ Hampshires
The fact that Carole Youngs keeps Hampshire Down sheep today is due to a very happy accident. “It was the result of a friend of a friend needing to downsize their flock in 2006,” she explains.
Despite having completed a course on sheep health at Hartpury College some years previously, Carole confesses that she didn’t then know very much about specific sheep breeds, and certainly little about the Hampshire, with its fine dense white fleece and eye-catching dark brown ears, face and legs. However, the friend of a friend set the ball rolling for a complete change of lifestyle for Carole and her partner, Robin Smurthwaite.
They now live happily in France where they run a thriving commercial sheep business, the mainstay of which is — of course — their Hampshire Down flock.
The farm is situated in Limousin, the epicentre of French livestock farming. It comprises 60ha of unimproved grassland with a further area of woodland. By French standards, it is a relatively small farm, but it is plenty big enough to make a home and a modest living for Carole and Robin, as well as their Hampshires, dogs and horses.
The couple’s original flock, which they took on when they lived in 15 acres of “idyllic” Gloucestershire countryside (they relocated to France in 2015), consisted of 12 pedigree Hampshire Down ewes and a very large ram called Kinky.
“We named them the Gorgeous Flock, as this was how all our visitors described them,” smiles Carole, who plans the well respected The Smallholder Series of DVDs which are presented by Countryfile’s Adam Henson. “Initially, the sheeps’ job on our smallholding was two-fold: firstly, to keep our lovely fragrant meadow grass under control for our horses, who, if left on lush pasture, would have been at risk of developing laminitis [a painful and potentially fatal condition that affects horses’ feet] and secondly to help with the horses’ parasite control.
Cross-grazing horses with ruminants reduces the worm burden of both species by hoovering up the larvae of gut worms and breaking the life cycle. The horses follow the sheep from paddock to paddock and, as parasitic worms are host-specific, the larvae of any horse worms are destroyed in the gut of sheep and vice versa. This is also an ideal regime for organic, low input meat production and, having tasted the succulent and flavoursome Hampshire lamb, hogget and mutton, Carole realised it as something special.
The Hampshire is particularly well suited to the production of grass-fed meat due to the lambs’ ability to grow quickly and achieve a finished weight solely from their mother’s milk and good grass, with
little or no supplementary feeding. Lambs in the top-performing recorded flocks have the genetic ability to achieve live-weight of around 42kg in little more than three or four months.
From an environmental perspective, this is good news as it means that during their lifetime, the lambs consume less in terms of feedstuff and treatments, while, at the same time, they create less polluting greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide and methane.
According to Carole, the principle purpose of the breed is to provide terminal sires — rams that, when mated to commercial ewes, will pass on their beneficial growth rates to their progeny (all of which are intended to go as meat rather than as replacement breeding stock, hence ‘terminal’).
“This is the reason we took our flock with us when we moved to France,” says Carole. “However, before the sheep could be signed off to travel, we had to wait for the results of rigorous blood tests to determine their health status, specifically for their resistance to scrapie [an incurable neurological disease]. Only sheep that tested as Group 1 (ARR/ARR), the group with the highest resistance to the disease, were allowed to travel with us and, thankfully, all but two shearling ewes were cleared for export on this count.”
Sheep exported to France must also be certified as free of the presence of Maedi Visna (MV), a chronic respiratory disease of ruminants. Carole’s flock, like many terminal sire breeds, had been MV accredited since she acquired them, but the export formalities nevertheless included their vet taking blood samples from all the sheep and providing individual passports certifying their disease-free status.
On their arrival on the other side of the Channel, Carole and Robin had soon acquired a further three flocks of local Brebis du Pays. “We would probably call them ‘mules’ in the UK,” she says. That brought their total population to 168 ewes.
So, why did they go to the not inconsiderable cost and effort of exporting a small flock of English sheep all the way to the principle livestock centre of France?
“First and foremost, our Hampshire Downs were a known quantity,” Carole explains. “We knew their pedigrees, their health status, their breeding history and their temperaments. Importantly, we have experience of using Hampshire Down rams as terminal sires. When mated with commercial ewes they pass on their outstanding growth rates and carcass conformation to their crossbred offspring.”
For the commercial farmer, this means roomy ewes for easy lambing, lambs that are lively and vigorous at birth, those that boast narrow heads and can lamb easily, exceptional growth-rates (finishing from eight weeks is possible) and desirable conformation.
Carole admits that it was a rather audacious decision to export sheep from the UK to Europe’s centre of sheep production, but they are glad that they did it, not least because “our Hampshire Down flock has been winning the admiration of our French neighbours, including our vets and contractors, from shearers to fencers”.
Carole throws a little French into the equation as a parting shot: “Ceux sont des bon brebis.” It means those are good sheep.
Carole Youngs originally took 12 pedigree Hampshire ewes to France The Hampshire is the mainstay of Carole’s business Carole’s farm is located in Limousin
Carole is glad that she exported sheep from the UK — even though it was a rather audacious decision
Carole’s sheep are admired by her neighbours