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Farming collaboration doubles the size of the sheep flock at Norfolk farm

Alec Birkbeck and David Ketteringham have forged a new share farming agreement at Westacre Farms. Picture: Chris Hill

Alec Birkbeck and David Ketteringham have forged a new share farming agreement at Westacre Farms. Picture: Chris Hill

Chris Hill

A spirit of collaboration has helped two Norfolk farm businesses bolster their profitability - and sustained a livestock enterprise which is vital to a mixed farming estate.

Spring lambs and their mother at Westacre Farms. Picture: Chris HillSpring lambs and their mother at Westacre Farms. Picture: Chris Hill

A ground-breaking agreement is helping two forward-thinking Norfolk farmers work together to expand a sheep flock vital to the viability of a mixed farming estate.

Landowner Alec Birkbeck said livestock were integral to his system at Westacre Farms near Swaffham, where the animals help to enrich the dry, sandy soil to benefit the 1,200 hectares of arable crops.

The farm also rents out land for outdoor pigs, geese and turkeys, but as its own stock consisted of only 600 ewes and around 50 cattle, Mr Birkbeck said the livestock enterprise was not big enough to be profitable – and nor did he have the expertise to manage a larger operation.

After a nationwide search, he signed a 10-year share farming agreement last August with David Ketteringham, a contract shepherd with his own flock at Ashill and experience of managing and shearing thousands of animals every year.

A new spring lamb at Westacre Farms. Picture: Chris HillA new spring lamb at Westacre Farms. Picture: Chris Hill

Under the deal, Mr Birkbeck provides the land and some of the sheep, while Mr Ketteringham brings another 500 ewes and his expertise in managing them.

The expanded flock of 1,100 ewes has produced its first lambs this spring and is well on the way to earning its place in the business.

“We made a decision two years ago that we needed to scale up to make it viable,” said Mr Birkbeck.

“I knew perfectly well that I didn't have the experience to run a successful livestock enterprise, but it is necessary as part of our farm. We have incredibly sandy soil, so it relies on a lot of muck, which is why livestock is so important to us.

Red poll cattle at Westacre Farms, which are due to be sold after grassland was allocated to a re-wilding project. Picture: Chris HillRed poll cattle at Westacre Farms, which are due to be sold after grassland was allocated to a re-wilding project. Picture: Chris Hill

“The sheep graze on over-winter crops, which in turn allow us to reduce run-off from the soil and the sheep put nutrients into the ground over the winter.

“But we were not grazing our fields properly and we needed to find a way of doing it better, because we couldn't justify doing it year on year and it not wiping its face.

“Our agreement is based on the idea that if your net profit from growing a barley is marginal, if it is so on the edge that in an average year you are making £10 per acre, then you are better off generating £20 per acre with a grass and livestock operation – and then focus your efforts on areas of the farm where you can support the arable operation without subsidies.”

One complication to the agreement is the loss of 480 acres of grassland, which is being allocated to a major re-wilding project, a joint venture between the West Acre Estate and three of its neighbours.

As a result, the farm's 50-strong herd of Red Poll cattle will be sold within the next month, and more land is needed to sustain the expanded sheep flock – so grass leys are being created in the arable rotation and discussions are under way with other neighbouring landowners about more possible collaborations to supply grazing land.

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Mr Ketteringham said, despite these challenges, a productive lambing season meant the new venture is working well, proving the value of collaboration. But he is frustrated by some farmers' unwillingness to change, which he believes is rooted in the reliance on EU direct payment subsidies, which are set to be phased out after Brexit.

“I think that is an old school vision of farming – they don't look hard enough into a business to see where they are making money, or not making money,” he said. “To me, this is about stability. It has enable me to grow.”

Although Brexit remains a concern for the sheep industry, Mr Ketteringham said it should be seen an opportunity to promote the benefits of UK lamb.

“Brexit is a massive concern, because all you ever read about is the devastating worst-case scenario,” he said. “But we have got to really push the positives of lamb production.

“You cannot get away from the fact that sheep are free-range and outside. We finish lambs out on a massive parkland and there is a feeder out there which they can nibble if they want to. They are not having food rammed down their throats or being crammed in a shed.

“I think as an industry we need to be pushing those positives and promoting British lamb.”

A RESURGENCE IN SHARE FARMING?

Share farming agreements like the one at Westacre Farms could become more popular after Brexit, according to the rural agents who helped broker the deal.

Brown and Co says net arable margins are likely to come under pressure as Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) subsidies are phased out, while the new Environmental Land Management Scheme payments will reward different green criteria for soil health and organic matter.

As a result, it could become easier and cheaper to manage the land with livestock, which may provide an opportunity for skilled stockmen and women to run their own businesses as share farmers, perhaps on a zero-rent basis.

Simon Wearmouth, a partner at Brown and Co's Norwich office, said: “Looking at the economics of cereal production, and more marginal land in particular, then opportunities like this where you can add greater forage into the rotation could drive another income from having a grazier on your land.

“Without BPS we might be relying on more of a stewardship-based return, and you need to maintain some control over that rather than just renting land to a grazier. If both the landowner and the grazier are relying on the revenue of the livestock to raise some income, then they will both be more focused on the bottom line.”

Mr Wearmouth said there were more than 30 applicants for the share farming opportunity at Westacre.

“We advertised 1,000 acres of share farming opportunity in Norfolk, and to my knowledge that has not happened here before – not for a long time, anyway,” he said.

“There was some international interest from Canada and in the UK it came from Northumberland down to the West Country. So there are a lot of very forward-thinking livestock people out there who are looking for opportunities like this.”

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