Lambs move into the age of indoor farming

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The Independent Online
A CORRUGATED asbestos barn 30ft by 120ft, stacked with silage and straw, is home to 180 lambs and their mothers, writes Marie Woolf. This is Ramsbury in Wiltshire, where lambs are being reared on feed pellets for the French market.

Some yesterday were only 10 days old. They were born early, the ewes made to ovulate before the normal season by an artificial hormone, melatanin (trade name Regulin), licensed by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1991.

Only one commercial sheep bred in Britain, the Dorset Horn, naturally produces lambs all year round. Most lamb in spring when the weather and grass supply are best. But yesterday there was a deafening bleating as lambs such as the lean Bleu du Main jostled with local breeds such as the Suffolk, crying enthusiastically at the farmer's approach, mimicking their mothers' begging for food.

This week animal-rights campaigners are claiming that the rearing of lambs in barns and stalls will lead to factory farming and threatens more humane sheepfarming methods used in Britain for hundreds of years.

The farm manager, Alastair Ewing, a farmer for 22 years, is one of a growing number of people recently using Regulin, which fools sheep into conceiving earlier and producing winter lambs which can be slaughtered and sold for a higher price in spring, when lamb is in short supply.

The 2,500-acre mixed farm relies on sheep for 10 per cent of its revenue, and last year Mr Ewing made a profit on his lambs. He proposes to carry on using Regulin to produce lambs in winter and to rear them in his barn. "Our market is tied to the Continent whether we like it or not. This is the third or fourth year we have used Regulin and we plan to stick with it."

Mr Ewing is a good advertisement for his profession. He is ever conscious of the welfare of his sheep, checking them twice daily and clearing them out regularly.

But, he says, some other farmers using the same method to rear lambs are not as scrupulous. "There are some who will take advantage of this rearing system and the fact that ewes are in barns and won't treat them properly," he said. "They must be crucified if they treat sheep badly. They must lay down the strictest penalties."

His sheep are checked once a year by a Ministry of Agriculture vet who, Mr Ewing says, has passed them without complaint.

He admits, however, that the main reason for rearing sheep in this way is profit. Winter is a bad time to raise lambs: the weather is too cold for most breeds to graze outdoors and winter grass does not have enough nutrients to support them properly. He explained: "Everyone likes the image of lambs gambolling in fields but methods have changed. You would not have seen barns like this 100 years ago."

His lambs will be fed concentrated pellets in creeps - stalls which ewes cannot fit into - to make them grow.

Disease ican be a real danger when rearing sheep in barns, for without good ventilation germs can spread swiftly among the flock.

"We are constantly aware of the danger of disease," Mr Ewing said. "You have to be if sheep are inside. The whole front of our barn is open to let the air in."

If the weather is good, Mr Ewing hopes to put the lambs out in March, once the new grass begins to grow.

But other farmers, vets say, keep them inside until slaughter to maintain their weight.

Britain now has some 20 million breeding sheep, about half of the European flock. Intensive rearing methods, say vets, are already prolific on the Continent and animal-rights protesters argue that in Britain the trend is heading the same way.

This, they fear, will destroy the well-deserved green image of the one British farm animal that has hitherto not been reared in the same way as some pigs and chickens, in a system more like a factory than a field.