From farm to fork
Lisa Morgan explains how a project with RSPB Ramsey Island and a Pembrokeshire restaurant highlights the positive elements of environmentally-friendly farming.
The sight of an elusive, red-legged crow rising above a sea-cliff gets most birders very excited. Ramsey Island is a Special Protection Area for choughs, with eight pairs of the coastal corvids breeding in the island’s sea caves each year. Your support is helping us to protect these birds, and the rest of the wildlife on Ramsey Island.
Farming sheep, to help the birds
With a UK population of under 400 pairs, we have to make sure we get our habitat management exactly right. Choughs prefer areas of short grass that allow them to feed easily on soil invertebrates like cranefly larvae and dung-beetle grubs. This is why Ramsey remains a working sheep farm – we can use our ovine friends as natural lawnmowers to keep the grassland in check, and the choughs happy.
The island requires more grazing animals in the summer and, given the logistical challenges of moving sheep on and off the island, and the high cost of buying animals at market, the obvious solution is to breed from our own flock. We bought and trained a border collie pup nine years ago and learned lambing skills from a local farmer.
Our first lambs of 2017 were born at dawn on 10 April, four days earlier than expected, and within a fortnight we had overseen the safe delivery of 101 Welsh mountain lambs. A mixture of twins and singles all thrived in the mild weather conditions. I help deliver Ramsey’s lambs, along with Site Manager Greg and our intern Sarah, but the season only runs smoothly with the help of sheepdog Dewi – by far the most important member of RSPB staff in Pembrokeshire during lambing! With his beady eye and speed, Greg’s strength and my small hands (I’ll leave that to your imagination!), we successfully delivered even the most awkward of lambs.
A fine balance
By midsummer it’s time to wean the lambs from their tired mothers, and it takes a full day for the team to complete all the little fiddly jobs. Firstly, Dewi and Greg bring the flock into the yard from across the island, Greg on the quad bike and the dog on foot. Ewes and lambs come through the barn to be split and the lambs are sexed and wormed, and have their electronic ear-tags fitted.
Although times are easy for sheep in summer, grazing on a small island requires a fine balance. We want to make sure that we have the right number of animals on the island over winter – both for their welfare and so that we don’t over-graze. For the last two years, we have formed a great partnership with a new farm-to-fork restaurant, St David’s Kitchen, which buys all our excess lambs in the autumn.
Hard work and successful outcomes
In October, we wait for a calm spell of weather and a big spring tide. These are the perfect conditions for some early morning “sea-shepherding” and it’s a real community effort with help from local boatmen and farmers - quite an event and the culmination of all our hard work.
Our sheep are taken by boat to the lifeboat station opposite the island, and walked up the road with sheepdog and shepherd as escorts – as generations of island farmers did before us. Our lambs continue to graze on the St David’s Peninsula, in full view of Ramsey, which is visible from the farmhouse window – until they are ready for the restaurant.
St David’s Kitchen’s ethos is to keep the community at the heart of everything sold at the restaurant. The owners can trace their family back over 215 years in the area, so serving local produce is crucial to the way they work. For us it’s the ideal outcome; our animals are well looked after, need minimal transportation, and the restaurant’s ethos of nature-friendly farming fits perfectly with our own.