From pasture to plate…

By Mark Young – St Helens Restaurant

I met the editor of Island Life, Martin, in November last year. He came to my restaurant in St Helens to dine and interview me for the December/January issue. After service we sat for our planned fifteen-minute chat.  Two hours later  and a very in depth discussion about food we said our goodbyes with Martin’s parting words being, “With your background of farming, (I spent my childhood on Atherfield farm where my father worked for the late Albert Henton), catering and passion for Island produce, you should write a food column for Island Life.

What I plan to do in this regular column is give you an idea of what is in season on the Island, where it can be sourced and a recipe idea for you to try using the featured product. My greatest hope however, is that in reading this I can encourage people to change their shopping habits. We are extremely privileged to have some dedicated producers of quality foods on the Island.  Current concerns about the impact that our spending habits have on the globe in terms of food miles should be reason enough for us to start putting our money where our mouths are. I feel there is no better time to start supporting our local food network. A network that already encompasses Farmers Markets, farm shops and in some cases, direct from the producers themselves.

My time as a chef on the Island has spanned 16 years, during which time I have been fortunate to meet some fantastic people, who are passionate about what they do. Big business seems only to be interested in big profits, but the people you will meet through this column are not only passionate and like all of us striving to make a living, but are doing so without comprising animal welfare and minimising their impact on the environment. Literally food for thought isn’t it?

The subject of this issue is Island lamb. There are a number of farmers producing great quality lamb on the Island, but due to a lack of an abattoir on the IOW all lamb is sent to the mainland to be slaughtered, the majority of which never make it back.  Fortunately there are a few producers that do get over this hurdle, (no pun intended) and return their animals for us Islanders to enjoy. Amongst these are Chinashop Rare Breeds, Dunsbury Lamb, Godshill Park Farm Organics and Island Fresh Lamb.

It is with Les and Carol Morris of Island Fresh Lamb that I spent an afternoon discovering what it takes to put that succulent leg of roasted lamb on your Sunday lunch table.

Q. How long have you been farming?

Since I was sixteen. My Father was a tenant farmer in Worcestershire and it was expected that I work on the farm when I left school. It was my first experience of sheep farming, although the farm was a mixture of animals and crops. I worked with him for twelve years before buying a dairy farm with my brother. Later I met Carol and we moved to the island in 1983, setting up at Chillerton Farm, We made our move to Parkwater in 1987.

Q. What is the biggest change in farming methods you have seen during your career?

The demise of the small family run farm. Twenty years ago it was possible to make a living on a 60-80 acre farm; today it would be a struggle to survive with less than 250 acres.

Q. How many animals do you look after at any one time and where are they?

We currently have 1200 ewes and depending on the time of year we graze them at Chillerton and around Newtown estuary. The Landowners allow the sheep to graze, and in return they fertilise the land in a natural way!

Q. How long does it take to rear an animal and how does this differ from intensive methods?

It takes up to a maximum of nine months. We lamb in May and the youngsters are on their Mothers until mid-September. Then they graze on grass until November. Finally we finish the animals on root crop stubble until March, when they are sent to slaughter. After weaning, intensively reared lambs are bought indoors and fed concentrates to encourage them to put on weight more quickly. They reach their slaughter weights by six months at the latest.

Q. What difference does this make?

Our lambs put on weight more naturally, which leads to a more mature tasting meat, increased further by a two-week hanging period after slaughter. Intensive lamb is under cellophane and in the shops within a couple of days of being killed.

Q. How do you provide your customers with lamb throughout the year?

As with most animals, humans included, some lambs grow and mature more quickly than others. We pull the faster maturing animals and finish them earlier, about 20 every two weeks. We sell three per week through Farmer Jacks, three through Farmers markets, three by box scheme and one to your restaurant.

Q. Would having an Island abattoir make a difference to your business?

Yes, without a doubt. It would reduce transport cost and therefore product cost, and animal stress and increase availability.

Q. Finally If you could have your time again, would you still have become a sheep farmer?

Yes, because I’ve always been a bit daft! Although looking back, I wasn’t really given a choice when I left school, I did though choose to continue in farming. And when I am walking across Newtown Estuary at 5am on a clear spring morning there is nowhere else in the world I would want my office to be.

Les and Carol are great examples of farmers who really care about their animals’ welfare and the impact of their farming on the environment. Their methods put natural fertility back into the land and great tasting, ethically reared lamb on our plates.

You can buy Les and Carol’s lamb at the farmers markets in Newport and Ryde, Farmer Jack’s at Arreton and direct from Parkwater Farm.