When most people think of a lamb leg they usually include mint jelly and roast potatoes in their thoughts. But for sheep breeding pioneer Robyn Hulme of Shropshire, England, a lamb leg threatened to jeopardize the dream of building his flock based on imported New Zealand Texel ewes.
An over-enthusiastic ewe trod on her lamb’s back leg and broke the metatarsal bone which, on a sheep’s back leg is the long bone below the hock, resulting in a very nasty compound fracture.
“Our vet came out and after an examination the leg was cleaned, dressed, bandaged and plastered and a course of antibiotics prescribed,” he says. “After three weeks, as instructed, we took the lamb to the surgery to see how the leg was progressing.”
The news was very bad.
“In spite of the antibiotics, infection had got into the leg through the broken skin and now we had a leg with a large open wound and very obviously a bone in two totally separate pieces,” Hulme says.
“The prognosis for a successful outcome was very poor and normally in such a situation one would put the lamb to sleep.”
As the lamb was one of only seven ewe lambs born to his New Zealand-import Texel ewes, Hulme decided that even if there was a very small chance of success he should give it a try.
“So the lamb was anesthetized, the wound thoroughly cleansed, antibiotic powder sprinkled onto the open wound and thenand this is not a ‘wind up’ (Brit.: ‘spoof’)a spoonful of honey was also plopped into the open wound,” he says.
The honey, like the sheep, comes from New Zealand and bees make it from the nectar of the Manuka plant. This honey has long recognized antibacterial, as well as general healing qualities and is used to treat human wounds.
The lamb’s leg was then redressed and bandaged, the original splint reapplied.
“This process was repeated a further three times at weekly intervals before we were told that the x-ray showed the two bones were knitting well enough for the splint and bandages to be removed,” Hulme says.
“The result is that we have a perfectly healthy lambwith one slightly short legwhich, for seven weeks, had been easily recognized in the field by her one, rather fetching, designer stocking.
“The lamb is now in the field with a slight limp due to her one leg being a bit short but otherwise is well and continues to grow.”
“We Resolved To Do Whatever It Took To Save These Genetics”
Hulme says the reason he spent so much time and expense on the ewe lamb (medical grade Manuka honey, which tests high in antibiotic potency can cost $2/ounce and more) was that the lamb’s genetic mother was one of only 10 ewe lambs and yearling ewes and three rams importable from New Zealand in 2011.
“These sheep were very difficult to source since for entry to the European Union countries sheep must be fully scrapie resistant and have an ARR/ARR genotype,” he says.
“These are very difficult to find in New Zealand due, I assume, to the fact that New Zealand is scrapie-free so that no one has ever needed to select against scrapie susceptibility.
“It seems that in both the Suffolk and Texel breeds less than five percent of the population is the appropriate genotype.”
Hulme’s farm is 180 miles northwest of London, where he founded Easyrams, the United Kingdom’s only breeder of 100 percent New Zealand genetically sourced Suffolk, Texel and Sufftex rams.
The seven-month-old Sufftex lambs are three-quarter New Zealand Suffolk and one-quarter New Zealand Texel. Their dams were New Zealand Suffolk ewes and their sire was a half Suffolk-half Texel ram.
The most outstanding feature of the Texel breed is its remarkable muscle development and leanness. Research results from Clay Center, Nebraska and the Univ. of Wisconsin indicate Texel-sired lambs typically have a six to ten percent advantage in loin-eye area over American black-face-sired lambs.
Seven month-old Sufftex ram lambs: 75 percent NZ Suffolk and 25 percent NZ Texel. Their dams were New Zealand Suffolk ewes bred to a 50-50 cross Suffolk-Texel ram.
The Costly Move Away From British Suffolk Production
Hulme says the Texel importation was a natural follow-up from his original 2006 Suffolk importation of frozen embryos.
“My family has been involved with breeding Suffolk sheep since my father purchased 20 ewes from Bury St Edmunds Suffolk Society sale in 1952,” he says.
“Until the late 1970s we were very traditional breeders selling rams mainly for crossingto go on local ewes to produce slaughter lambs. However, in 1978 we decided to go down the pedigree breeding route more seriously and started to buy very high profile sheep considered to be at the top end of the breed.”
During this time Hulme was part of a consortium that bought Pankymoor Prelude, the 1993 Edinburgh champion for the then-record price of $35,760. His offspring were enormously successful in show and sale; Prelude was the first ram to sire offspring selling for a total of more than $1.6 million.
However, during this time subtle changes took place in the composition of the British sheep flock. In 1990, the Suffolk was at its peak; 49 percent of all lambs in the UK were sired by a Suffolk with more than 2,500 pedigree flocks within the Suffolk Sheep Society.
“The story of the Suffolk has been one of continuous decline since then, so that by 2003 the market share dropped to 22 percent, while the Texel rose from zero in 1990 to 24 percent in 2003,” Hulme says. “This decline continues to this day.”
The other major factor in the UK sheep industry since 2001 is that the British ewe flock declined from about 21 million ewes to 14.5 million ewes.
“So to summarize, for the last 15 years the Suffolk has had a declining share of a declining total ram market,” Hulme says.
From 2002-4 he was chairman of the Suffolk Sheep Society, then he served as its commercial director.
“It was these responsibilities that made me acutely aware of the declining popularity of the Suffolk amongst commercial sheep farmers,” Hulme says. “In a nutshell, I and others concluded that the British Suffolk with its very big head and very wide legs was producing lambs that could not be born easily and which if born were very slow to stand and suck due to the prolonged and difficult birth process.”
In addition, the general dagginess (soiling around their back ends) of British Suffolk-sired lambs was a real pain involving much extra work.
“I organized a national Suffolk conference in 2006 at which our main speaker was Murray Rohloff, a leading New Zealand ram breeder,” Hulme says.
Shifting Focus To Commercial Lamb Production
Hulme was attracted to Rohloff’s philosophy that ram breeders should sell rams that will increase their clients’ profitability and that the key client is the commercial farmer.
“So, we sold our traditional UK Suffolks in 2006 and imported at the same time Suffolk embryos from New Zealand,” he says.
“My ‘road-to-Damascus’ conversion amazed and horrified my former Suffolk breeding colleagues who thought me both mad and a threat to their existing businesses. Indeed there has been considerable antagonism from many of them towards me.”
But he’s winning converts. Hulme sold 15 rams in 2007; 35 in 2008; 75 in 2009; 103 in 2010; 133 in 2011; and he hopes to sell about 180 this year.
“Our immediate target would be to sell 500 rams a year within the next five years,” he says.
“Our business is to supply rams guaranteed to increase the profits of our clients and we produce rams under management systems similar to those our clients use; they eat grass, not concentrates,” he says. Hulme says his 180 clients over the last five years have found the New Zealand Suffolk and Sufftex thrive on a grass-based diet with no supplementary feed and without melting.
“EasyRams’ ability to serve very large numbers of ewes within a single cycle and to live and work for much longer than UK breeds substantially reduces clients’ costs,” he says.
The wedge-shaped lambs are easily borneven out of small ewes or ewe lambsand quick to get on their feet and suckle. Great vigor and good coats make them ideal for outdoor lambing, particularly in the UK hills and uplands.
The most obvious difference between the traditional UK Suffolks and the imports is appearance.
“Our New Zealand Suffolks are taller and finer in the face and have finer bones,” Hulme says. “They also are finer in the shoulders giving an obvious wedge shaped profile.
“They’re more easily born and much more vigorous at birth with very few purebreds requiring lambing or suckling assistance. Before, we lambed 80 to 90 percent and assisted a similar number to suck.”
The imports are much less prone to foot rot and Hulme doesn’t have to trim feet as a routine operation. They’re much less daggy (cleaner back ends); appear more worm-resilient; and are much more aggressive grazers. Their lambs thrive and finish on grass with no concentrate feeds.
“Our increasing sales and the high proportion of people coming back for more show we’re going down the right track and I hope we’re as successful with Texels as with the Suffolks,” Hulme says.
There’s a Texel lamb with a limp in Shropshire that attests to one breeder’s resolve to succeed. And a new method of saving “goners” by using honey might just have arisen, perhaps more precious than Hulme’s new genetics. Either way, one thing’s sure: His last-ditch gambit filled bleak hopes, and that’s sweet indeed.