Blog: Ellen Helliwell
1st March 2016
Ellen Helliwell (22) is an NSA Next Generation Ambassador 2016 from Cheltnham, Gloucestershire. Employed as a stockman on a mixed lowland farm in the Cotswolds with a popular farm park, Ellen’s shepherding job includes all the usual farm jobs with the added element of doing it alongside hundreds of visitors. It also involves a fascinating mix of running rare sheep breeds alongside a commercial flock.
It is a long way from the tenanted hill farm that her parents run in the Peak District, and while she says her heart will always be in the uplands, Ellen is thriving on the contrast of her current role. She is involved in all the nutritional, health and management of the flocks, which include 400 Lleyns and New Zealand Romneys and 150 sheep from 12 rare breeds. The combination has given her a unique insight into the many differences and similarities between upland and lowland farms and Ellen speaks passionately about the need for both to work together, particularly on breeding sheep within the stratified system. Ellen’s long-term aim is to have her own tenancy and she hopes to gain confidence and knowledge as an NSA Next Generation Ambassador to help her on this journey.
Top fact: With her roots in Derbyshire, Ellen entered the Young Shepherd of the Year competition at the NSA Central Region Winter Fair in 2013 and walked away with the top spot and prize money when aged just 19.
Scroll down for entries from Ellen about her farming year in so far in 2016. You can also keep up to date by following Ellen on Twitter @eshelliwell.
Like many farmers around the country, the past couple of months has been slightly less manick than other times of the year. However with the lambing shed to set up, cattle and sheep to feed and bed up along with all the pigs, poultry, goats and a few maintenance jobs to do we are nevertheless keeping busy!
The first lambing group has been out on green manure over the winter and were brought in to the lambing shed after being dagged and vacinated. Any lamness issues which cropped were also be treated, and the ewes were then grouped according to condition, number of lambs they’re carrying and due date. We are now well into lambing and kidding, with most of the early ewes done and dusted and out in the field enjoying the odd days of sun. The later batch has moved into the shed to lamb and the goats are just starting to kid. Luckily the majority of the shearlings which lambed in the first batch have produced some big strong lambs so far, so we’re hoping for more of the same now with the later batch!
The first of the NSA Ambassador delivery sessions was a jam packed couple of days, with really informative talks by industry specalists. It was a good chance to meet and get to know the other NSA Ambasadors and find out more about them and their farming systems.
The first day in March saw us hold a talk on lambing deaths, organised by a local sheep group. Despite being held in a cold lambing shed, it was a really interesting and useful night with topics including everything from knowing what causes deaths at early stage of ewe pregnancy and how to prevent them, through to doing post-mortems on older lambs to find out the cause of death. It was also a good chance to meet local farmers and see how they’re getting on with the start of lambing- and it’s not long before we can put our new skills to the test!
Lambing continues to keep us busy and on our toes, with little pens being emptied not long after being filled. The ewes have been producing good strong singles and twins, however we’ve had a few more multiples than we were expected, which has meant a lot more feeding and looking after of lambs. The first of the lambs that have been turned out are growing well and putting on lots of condition. Not only have we got sheep and goats giving birth on the farm, the pigs are also farrowing too. Other jobs on the farm also need our attention, with cattle to be fed and bedded up, young bulls to be halter trained, electric fencing to put up in order to split a big field and many more.
Given that the farm where I work is open to the public, there is also a lot of moving sheep around and explaining what we are doing, why and generally answering any questions. When you are in the thick of lambing, you sometimes forget that seeing lambs being born is pretty special and amazing (when it goes well) until you see the reaction of the public!
The weeks are flying by at the minute. We have finally finished lambing at work, with the last two ewes lambing this last week. However, working on a farm that’s open to the public means we have a couple of days to muck out and pressure wash the lambing shed to get it ready for the next set of demonstrations, meaning there is little time for a rest yet! Lambing too is only just starting, along with calving, on my parent’s farm at home.True to form and because we lamb outside, it’s raining! The ewes are all getting on with it though, coming thick and fast and keeping everyone on their toes. Amongst the flock, there is one special ewe who’s managed to lamb on the same day for the past three years. I think we need more like her!
Back at work in Gloucestershire, all the lambs are growing well and we are keeping an eye out for any worm problems in the older groups started doing FEC counts on these groups. The grass is starting to come through nicely though, helping the lambs grow and keeping the ewes fit. At the beginning of the month, we also gathered in the Kerry Hills we’re planning on taking to shows and sales this year to shear in the hope they’ll now go on to produce a quality fleece and look even better for the shows and sales. I don’t think that they appreciated losing their warm fleeces much at the beginning of April though!
The grass has really started to grow in the last few weeks which is great for the lambs and getting them finished, but also means some of the ewes and ewe lambs have become slightly mucky so we’ve been busy dagging and worming. This also gives us the chace to get onto any foot problems at the same time. We’re keeping an eye on the growing lambs for any worm problems and carry out Feale Egg Counts (FEC) on all the groups to drench them accordingly, as there have been a few mucky lambs and we don’t want them to lose momentum in growing and putting on condition so it is important for us to keep the worms in check. The lambs are all being weighed every couple of weeks and are putting on weight and condition well, with some impressive daily live weight gains. The oldest group got sorted through today, and with 40+ meeting the correct weight and condition, they are due to be going soon.
We’ve also been sorting through and pulling out the rare breeds to use for the first of our shearing demos and while this proved to be the easy part of getting things ready, setting the shearing pen up was a little more challenging but we got there in the end. Like with most of the other day to day farming jobs on the farm, shearing is yet another thing that we do in front of the public. Most are really intrigued and keen to learn about the process though, as well as sheep and farm work in general and with the start of shearing underway, hopefully the weather will stay fine for a few weeks.
In the last week we have finished sheering our own flock at work, getting contractors in to help speed up the last mob. Although shearing means long days, it is a big relief to get the job done since the weather is starting to warm up slightly and flies are beginning to cause a problem. This year I have also been shearing a few local small holders’ sheep outside of work, which has kept me busy. It has also meant I’ve been able to go and see other people’s flocks and set ups, as well as having a good natter and catch up at the same time.
The oldest mob of lambs has now been weaned and moved onto the newer, better pasture that was reseeded last year. We are weighing the lambs every week or two, (depending on how many were close to weight at last weighing). To make sure we’re sending the fitter lambs away of before they spoil. The ewes too are now starting to gain a little bit of condition back, having lost it while rearing lambs.
With the showing season well underway, June gave me a long weekend away from the farm when I took a bull to the Three Counties Show. A large number of immaculately turned out cattle were shown, and a good turnout of both commercial and rare breed sheep too with classes being well attended. The young handlers section is always a highlight of any show, being an important part of encouraging younger people to stay in farming. After all the time and hard work put into getting stock ready and prepared for showing, the show its self is just as much a social event- even with the very early starts and late finishes!
With everything happening slightly later in the season up at home in the Peak District, it means shearing has not long started. With big areas of open moorland being grazed by a handful of different farmers, shearing time is always a chance to work together in order to gather all sheep in, and with so many sheep to sort it is sometimes easier to getter to one farm with all hands on deck to get jobs done quicker. Like when any group of farmers get together, there is a lot of talking and putting the world to rights to be done, usually over a brew!
July seems to have gone by in a flash! We have had all the rear breed ewes in and have gone through them checking teeth and bags in preparation for tupping. Whilst they were in the pens, it also gave us the chance to generally give them the once over and treat any that were lame.
The lambs are still coming in regularly to get weighed and foot bathed. They have also been split into three different groups, ewe lambs and ram lambs that will be kept for breeding or selling and weather lambs which will be sold for meat.
At the end of the month, we went to do the best sort of shopping you can do - sheep shopping, as we needed two new Lleyn stock rams. All the tups we looked at each had a set of EBV’s which were really interesting to look at, as well as the normal muscle depth, eight-week weight etc, they also had the myomax gene. This is a gene that increases the lamb’s carcass weight and muscle yield. They also tested for worm resistance as well. Looking at the EBV’s there were several that looked good on paper, although once you’d picked out that particular tup they didn’t always look as good as you hoped alongside their EBV’s. As always agreeing on one was a challenge, but we got there eventually and hopefully the new boys will do a good job with next year’s crop of lambs.
The NSA Sheep Event also fell at the end of the month, on July 27th. It was a jam packed day of interesting and informative talks which covered current, important topics within the industry. It was also a great chance to have a catch up with friends and other people with in the industry.
August is a busy month with the sheep and rest of the stock on the farm. Lambs are still regularly being weighed to pull out prime lambs and keep an eye out on the lighter lambs and their worm levels. The shearlings have also had some attention recently as we had a few more in the group than we need for replacements which meant some of the smaller shearlings were pulled out for selling. Whilst they were in the pens, they also got vaccinated against different abortions, put through the footbath and spray marked up ready for tupping time, a scary though as it only feels like we finished lambing five minutes ago.
There was also a lot of work to do at the beginning of the month getting stock in and ready for the Countryfile Live event. Cattle, sheep, pigs, donkeys and goats went down to the four-day show, which was packed with people coming to look at different livestock, watching demonstrations on milking, shearing and tacking up a horse for working the fields to name a few. It was a jam packed few days, and gave us a good opportunity to give the general public an insight in to agriculture, the importance of the agricultural industry as well as answering lots of questions and talking about important issues. It was a long few days for everyone who went and volunteered, but hopefully it made the public realise how important the industry is.
August also marks the beginning of the rare breed shows and sales, which means hours of dressing and clipping the sheep in preparation for the shows. The shows are a good opportunity to see how the stock compare with other breeder’s stock and also show the best of our rare breed stock off.
As well as getting stock ready for different shows and events, there has also been work getting hay made, baled and in whilst the good weather lasts. The ewe and tup lambs have also been back up to the pens to be sheared, which should hopefully make them put on more weight and improve their growth rates as they mature into breeding stock. Even with having to shear nearly 400 lambs, it was another good social and a chance to find out how the shearers had got on with the season and with three of us on the machines and one wool rapper it wasn’t too long a day.
September at work to me marks the start of the next sheep farming year. All the lambs were weaned a couple of months ago and the ewes have since had a rest and we’re now back round to tupping time again. All the stock rams were brought closer to the farm a few weeks ago for their annual MOT to make sure that they are all in working order before being put in with the ewes.
After the boys had had a bit of TLC, it was the the girls turn. We split the ewes into groups of Lleyns, New Zealand Romneys and ewes that we want to put to a terminal sire (normally the older ewes or the ewes that are in a slightly poorer condition). The Lleyns will be put back to the NZ Romney, the NZ Romneys to the Lleyn. This year we are using the polled Dorset as the terminal sire.
Having to lamb in the public eye means we stagger the number of ewes that go to the tup and also try and work it so we have more lambs around the school holidays – easier said than done sometimes! September also draws our show and sale season to a close, our last one being Melton Mowbray. With 28 different breeds of sheep going it meant a lot of prep work beforehand so I got a master class in dressing (trimming) Kerry Hill tups for sale, to make them look better and more eye catching. It was a lot easier when you have to experts showing you how to do it properly rather than trying to guess and I think they looked pretty good when we had finished with them!
The beginning of this month also saw me go to an M&S lead meeting alongside other producers who supply into the M&S Cotswold lamb range and representatives from Dawn Meats. It was a good way of all three parties communicating and working towards promoting and producing the best of this fantastic product that we possibly can. I even managed a weekend off too, visiting friends up in Cumbria at Newton Rigg College and like most farmers it involved going and having a noise around the farm and looking at all the livestock!
Lambing preparation is still ongoing through October. The tups have done a good job so far as there are plenty of colourful bums running about! We have taken the tups out in order to leave a few days gap when lambing (due to lambing for such a long period its quite nice having a break). As we lamb in the public eye, we like to have the busy lambing periods coinciding with the school holidays and Easter and this year we have decided to sponge some of the rare breeds so that they lamb during the busy periods.
The ewe lambs have had some attention again, having their second vaccination against clostridial diseases and a dose of wormer. Whilst they were in we had a chance to go through them and pick a couple of them out for selling and keep on top of their feet to. We are getting through our prime lambs as well. Having been on a live to dead day at the last NSA Next Generation session, it really helped when drawing them out to gauge whether they would be ready or not. We managed to get over half of what was left away and at some good grades.
November is a quieter time of year on the farm, with mainly general day to day routine checking round. It gives us a bit more time to catch up on some of the maintenance jobs that have been building up, but with the farm park closing early this year for building work it means we can bunch all the stock up together to make life a little easier for us over the winter months.
The tups came out for a few weeks in October to split lambing up a bit so the beginning of November marks the commercial tups going back in with the ewes alongside some of the rare breed tups. All the ewes are looking in good condition so hopefully some good scanning results will be had in January!
With the prime lambs out on the red clover lays, we are drawing a good number every two weeks. So far, we have been getting good grades and weights with the lambs and visiting an abattoir as part of a recent NSA Next Generation session has given me a better understanding of what I’m looking for when drawing lambs.
I have had an amazing time taking part in the NSA Next Generation ambassador programme, learning so much from all the visits that we have been on. It has given me lots more confidence and filled me with ideas for the future and improved my skills within the sheep sector. I have also gained so much from meeting and spending time with all the other Ambassadors. It has been really good to be able to bounce ideas off and learn from each other. I have made some very good friends and would thoroughly recommend the NSA Next Generation Ambassador programme.