Spring was a new experience at Royal Alexandra and Albert School in the United Kingdom when a flock of 50 sheep and then some of their lambs butted their way into the more usual reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic classes.
The pregnant “mule-cross” eweson loan from neighboring farmer Bernie Selbygrazed in fields surrounding the historic state-owned boarding school in Gatton Park, Surrey, 20 miles south of London.
The school has 930 students, including 430 boarders, and about 30 were involved with the ewes that came from a closed flock that has not introduced new animals for the past three or more years.
The sheep (along with goats, horses, chickens and bees already at the school) are being used as a learning resource for the school’s “Animal Care BTEC” course.
The acronym BTEC refers to the Business and Technology Education Council, a British organization that awards vocational qualifications in a wide range of subjects.
Pupils in the course are learning how to care for animals and the sheep will give them valuable experience with an animal that is a common feature of British farming.
Student Daisy Savin feeds the sheep.
“Earth Muffin” Appeal
Managing sheep not only includes caring for the livestock themselves, but also managing the environment. The students are learning important skills like fence building, driving a tractor and developing biodiversity.
Teacher Bob Greenhalgh, head of land-based studies at the school, says the sheep are not only a valuable learning resource, but also an important part of managing the parkland.
“If we did not have sheep grazing the fields around the school the landscape would soon turn to scrubland,” Greenhalgh says. “By maintaining the grassland with a grazing regime, pupils are learning how a grazed meadow environment encourages wild flowers including wild orchids.”
Students Gung-Ho About Sheep
Student Ollie Horncastle, 15, who is studying for BTECs in “Countryside and Environment” and “Animal Care” alongside his more traditional General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) options, sees a benefit in the range of activities in the course.
“We are learning how to drive tractors, chop wood, trap moles, maintain graveyards and look after animals,” Horncastle says. “At home, we keep some animals such as geese and sheep and while I am not considering a land-based career I would like to have a small-holding when I’m older.”
Headmaster Paul Spencer Ellis says the BTEC courses will continue.
“This school will continue to offer its land-based courses as we know they are right for a few pupils and they are a good route to employment,” Ellis says.
“Pupils who attend these courses often go on to further education at specialist agricultural colleges or go straight into work,” he says.
Students Ollie Horncastle, Daisy Savin and Yojan Rai tend the flock.
Sheep Help School Fund Raising
The school’s stance is not surprisingRoyal Alexandra and Albert School has always marched to a different drummer. In a country where boarding schools are generally private and very expensive, theirs is a state school where the education is paid from tax money and parents pay the costs of boarding.
Among the boarders, there are more than 50 receiving free residency, not necessarily because of academic ability, but because their home backgrounds make boarding a desirable alternative to a family situation.
The Royal Charity pays for these places at the school, which has the Queen of England as patron and the Duchess of Gloucester as President.
“As one of a handful of state boarding schools in the United Kingdom we are able to offer exceptional boarding education at a fraction of the cost of many other boarding schools,” Ellis says.
The school is set in Gatton Park, a former privately owned 270-acre estate less than an hour from London.
It is a standard state school in terms of running the usual mix of subjects for pupils up to the age of 18.
“Over the last few years we have used the land to run two courses which are not taught in any other state schools in England,” Ellis says.
One course is Horse Care and Management and the other is Countryside Management.
“Both of these are vocational courses rather than the standard academic courses, but they suit some of our pupils who are interested in those two lines of work,” he says.
“Pupils who have done the countryside management course have gone on to a variety of careers or further courses including fish farming and forestry.
“There is quite a variety of options within the course. One such option is animal management.
“It is not always obvious to the younger children where meat, milk and eggs came from, and seeing the animals first hand is a good lesson in life.
“Many children today fail to associate the animals they see (or if they live in a town they never see any) with the meat they eat,” Ellis says.
Previous success with organically-grown pigs inspired the school to check into the potential of sheep.
“Now we are doing the same with the ewes,” headmaster Paul Spencer Ellis says. “Pupils look after them and they return to their owner, who has the farm next to the school, for lambing.
Student Ollie Horncastle and a sheep near the Millennium stones in the background. The 10 standing stones were created in 2000 to mark the double millennium with each representing a 200-year segment of the modern era.
“We then take back six lambs and pupils look after them. They’re reared organically until ready for slaughter.”
The students are able to visit the ewes at the local farm during lambing.
Ellis says the lambs have not been named, as pupils are well aware that they are destined for the table. “The same top London restaurant that bought our pigs (top-rated Oxo Towers Restaurant) is already interested in buying our sheep!”
About 30 of the students are involved in the sheep project and the interaction with the animals gave the 14 to 16-year-olds valuable practical experience and taught them the responsibilities of animal management.
The money from the sale of the school’s lambs covers their costs. “Making a profit isn’t our intent,” says Ellis.
Despite sheep theft now rampant throughout the United Kingdom, the school has no real concerns about security: Most of the pasture land used by the sheep is visible from the school, which is on top of a hill. The combined eyes of students and staff provide a built-in Farm Watch security system.
“The sheep aren’t a nuisance to the children; they’re both as noisy as each other,” Ellis laughs.
“We are so lucky we have this amount of land to do the course andas a boarding schoolwe’re able to look after the sheep seven days a week.
“We have very academic courses, but we also run more vocational courses because not everybody is going to become a lawyer or an accountant.”
That’s fine for student Daisy Savin, 16, who hopes to continue her studies at a specialist agricultural college when she leaves school.
“I’m fine with the animals being bred for food,” she said. “I like eating meat. I’m a protein person. I’ve always loved being outside. I want a career that allows me to work with animals and be on the land.”
Ellis says the parents of pupils involved in the sheep program are very enthusiastic about the course.
“The important thing is that such a course is just what a small number of pupils really need, rather than the usual programs of math, history, science, etc.”
The school also has two ewes of the Welsh Badger-Faced breed that live with goats in a separate pasture. But they’re school pets with given names (freeing them from the threat of the cook-pot).
This first venture into sheep farming has the staff and students looking for more.
“In due course we plan to get a small number of Southdown sheep here, too,” Ellis says.
Australian Sheep In Education
The need for skilled workers in the sheep and wool industry is being addressed by Australian Agricultural College Corp., to ensure that nation’s will keep supplying quality fleece around the world.
Isabel Monce of Haden, Queensland, throws a fleece during hands-on training with the Australian Agricultural College Corp. at Longreach Pastoral Campus.
AACC production unit manager Peter Scott says the 600-ewe poll Merino stud the organization maintains is an important training tool for students in breeding and also business modeling.
“As well as full-time residential students honing their skills to be future leaders of the sheep and wool industry, the organization offers short courses in shearing and crutching, wool handling and livestock husbandry,” he says.
AACC runs 8,500 sheep across several campuses and properties—5,000 are breeding ewes and the flock is used in hands-on training in wool harvesting and handling, sheep husbandry, breeding management and butchering and slaughtering.
“Longrach Pastoral Campus is in fact practicing a paddock-to-plate program with students involved in all aspects of sheep husbandry right through to slaughter with the final product supplied to the residential caterers,” Scott says.
“This way, students have a holistic appreciation of the entire business and are job-ready as soon as they graduate.”