Dairy sheep may safely graze

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The Independent Online
COUNTRY MATTERS They all thought I was nuts," recalls Olivia Mills cheerfully. "A book about milking sheep? Whoever would read such a thing?"

That was in the early Eighties, when she distilled her own experience into Practical Sheep Dairying and offered it round the publishing houses. One after another rejected it until, at last, in 1982, the specialist firm Thorsons brought it out as a paperback. To its surprise, the book did well, and a second edition was published. Then in 1989 it issued a hardback version - and this has sold in every country of the world where sheep are milked.

The book has led its author "the most amazing dance". A man in Poona who found a copy in a bookshop was so riveted that he besought the British Council to arrange for Mrs Mills to visit India, for a month of practical instruction and demonstration. A veterinary professor from Uruguay, travelling in North America, found a copy in Minneapolis, contacted the British Council, and laid on a trip to his homeland. A man in Hungary picked up a copy and also arranged a visit, this time through the World Bank.

Mrs Mills has now made more than 20 such advisory trips, and is about to set off again for America to give four lectures. In this country she has emerged as the leading expert in her field, with an enormous reputation for industry and innovation.

Now in her sixties, but still formidably energetic, she has spent most of her life surrounded by milk animals of one kind or another. Her father pioneered automatic milking with shorthorn cows in 1927, on the Hampshire farm which she still owns, and she herself took over the herd when she grew up.

In the Seventies, with two sons at heel, she reluctantly sold the cows and began delving into medieval history. Her research showed that until the Black Death, in the 14th century, her area of the Hampshire Downs had been tremendous sheep country.

She found that all the land round about had been owned by the Bishop of Winchester, who had thousands of sheep and was immensely rich. She started to think, "Cows aren't a very good thing here. We're 600 feet above sea-level, and the land's very cold andlate."

With her mind turning to sheep, she at first "envisaged having six or eight, and milking them on the lawn as a kind of joke". Soon, however, she realised that there could be serious money in them, and got down to basics.

At an early stage she realised that there were not enough good sheep in Britain. Some farmers had Frieslands - the best milk breed - but most were of poor quality. Finding good rams in Switzerland, but not being allowed to bring them home, she retaliatedby importing frozen semen, with great success.

She achieved mastery of her subject by working at every aspect of it herself: breeding, feeding, lambing, milking, making cheese and yoghurt, and - not least - marketing the products. She was also instrumental in forming the British Sheep Dairying Association, which now has 300 members.

Today she has a flock of 85 Friesland ewes, which she manages with the help of one girl. This year's milking will start once the sheep have lambed in March: twice a day the well-trained ewes skip up on to a raised platform, 12 at a time, and machines take off each one's milk in only a minute or so. The best ewes give up to 700 litres during the season.

Some of the output is sold as milk, some as yoghurt, and some as cheese. As Mrs Mills points out, sheep's milk is much more versatile than cow's, having a higher solid content: "You can make it go acid or bland or nutty - anything you want." Her own winning brand of cheese is Walda (the medieval word for "wield"), made to a recipe like that for the Italian pecorino, but matured differently, and emerging as a lively and delicious cousin of cheddar.

With the popularity of sheep products spreading, the problem for farmers now is to produce more milk and to keep supplies going throughout the year. Mrs Mills herself tried milking all year round with two flocks - Frieslands in summer, Dorset Horn in winter - but found it extremely difficult.

Now the best hope of increasing output seems to lie in the MOET (multiple ovulation and embryo transfer) scheme, which has already proved successful in cows, and has recently been introduced into sheep. In this, ova from outstanding ewes are implanted inless-good sheep, so that the best genetic material is passed on to more lambs.

Would I like to be a sheep in Mrs Mills's care? I am not too sure. I know I should get the best of everything going, but at the same time, I should have to work like the devil for my hay.