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College's pioneering flock will protect rare sheep against extinction threats

PUBLISHED: 12:21 02 October 2019 | UPDATED: 13:32 02 October 2019

Students at Easton and Otley College have started a flock of rare Derbyshire gritstone sheep. Pictured from left are students Hannah Cousins and Joe Pierce with project sponsor Mike Beckett. Picture: Charlotte Auckland.

Students at Easton and Otley College have started a flock of rare Derbyshire gritstone sheep. Pictured from left are students Hannah Cousins and Joe Pierce with project sponsor Mike Beckett. Picture: Charlotte Auckland.

Charlotte Auckland

Farming students hope to safeguard the future of one of Britain's oldest native sheep breeds by starting a flock of the rare animals at their college.

A new cohort of 120 learners at the Norfolk and Suffolk campuses of Easton and Otley College have taken delivery of some Derbyshire gritstone ewes to establish what they believe to be the only pedigree flock in East Anglia.

There are currently fewer than 1,200 breeding ewes in the UK, putting the breed in the "at risk" category on the nation's sheep watchlist.

The college project, in partnership with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, aims to expand the range of the Derbyshire gritstone sheep and safeguard its future in the event of any potentially-disastrous infection outbreaks, such as foot and mouth disease.

The college's farm manager Tony Buttle said: "This breed is mainly native to Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Yorkshire so we are bringing it to the East of the country to protect them as a breed as there are no others over here, as far as I'm aware.

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"Currently, around 80pc are based within a 30 to 40-mile radius, so by bringing them to Norfolk and Suffolk will make sure they are protected against the threat of potential diseases and outbreaks.

"The plan is to breed them and create a small flock of pedigree sheep. We already have some rare breeds with our Norfolk Horn flock, so this influx will be great for our students in the sense they get to work on worthwhile projects with different breeds.

"They will also get the chance to show them competitively at upcoming shows."

Joe Pierce, a student at the Easton campus outside Norwich, said: "It's an honour to help maintain these rare breeds. The experience will definitely help me in the future."

The breeding ewes will be kept at Easton, but the animals will also be shown by Otley students at agricultural shows in Suffolk next year.

Suffolk student Hannah Cousins, who studies at the Otley campus near Ipswich, added: "The reason that I chose to take this course was because of the amount of different experiences that I would receive to help support my future ambitions. Naturally, working on this project will give me an insight into working with different breeds of sheep."

The sheep were sponsored by Mike Beckett, owner of Norwich-based firm Norfolk Liquid Feeds. He said: "The farm manager approached me to become a sponsor and, as a former student, I'm very pleased to have done what I have for the college and if I can do anything in the future, I'd be happy to do so."

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