In 1997, Alex and Andy Lee moved to Finchdean into a house called The Carpenters, in the middle of the hamlet. Five years later they started their smallholding. Both are now retired form their original careers.
The Smallholding is situated mostly on a hillside near the centre of the hamlet. It covers nine and a half acres or five fields of pasture, subdivided for grazing into 10 plots, with some natural shade. There are two sets of stables on the holding used for the storage of hay and straw.
Apart from some domestic chickens on one field along with Alex’s horse, their current livestock comprises some 41 Badger Faced Welsh Mountain sheep including one breeding ram. The breed produces good sweet and tender meat. Fleeces are of limited value being sent to the Wool Marketing Board. Occasionally skins have been treated and made into sheepskin rugs, but this is an increasingly difficult procedure with few tannery facilities left in the UK.
Alex and Andy have a ‘life-style’ interest in ‘organic farming’, perhaps as ‘hobby farmers’, who are interested in self-sufficiency, but are not overly commercial. They are committed to biodiversity and environmentally friendly practices – avoiding fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides. They are members of the Soil Association. Their practices benefit the quality of the meat produced as well as local wildlife – insects and birds. Their farming practices also maintain the rural landscape.
The couple tend the farm themselves but subcontract shearing and fencing. They purchase all the hay for winter feed. For slaughter, the sheep have to travel to Henfield near Brighton. Their meat is only sold locally. They are members of the local regional Small Shepherds Club which promotes good husbandry of smaller flocks. The Club provides an opportunity to arrange necessary training including the use of medicines.
Asked about environmental, commercial or regulatory changes that were being experienced, they commented on increased regulation by DEFRA. The flock has to be registered, and tagging practices are required (individual and flock, but not ‘passports’ as for cattle). The flock register describes the flock and records births and deaths, sheep movements, and notifiable diseases. Movement restrictions would apply if certain diseases were to be found on any local farm. These requirements, however, lead to ‘clean practices’ important in sustaining a healthy national sheep industry including for exports.
The smallholding used to benefit from government subsidies, but these now only apply to farms of more than five hectares
When discussing the environment, possibly due to ‘global warming’, they noted that two viral sheep diseases had recently emerged: Bluetongue, an insect transmitted viral disease, and: Schmallenberg virus, first reported only in 2001, which can cause congenital malformations. These diseases can also affect cattle and goats.
When asked about farming in the wider community, they both thought that an awareness and understanding by the public, and particularly children’s appreciation of farming and farm animals, were most important. They thought that the public should ‘get involved’. They had, for example, invited some local people to witness birthing of their lambs.
They felt that famers generally had a difficult job and were also under pressure.
There are two areas of concern where the public can help. Firstly, about ‘dog worrying’ – by dogs not being kept on leads – which can upset the sheep and in extreme cases lead to the death of lambs. Secondly, there was concern about rural theft of equipment – batteries or fuel – and even tractors.
Overall, Alex and Andy were both very positive about their farming activities which they found worthwhile, and offering real benefits for wildlife and the countryside.
(The meeting and interview with Alex and Andy was held on 13th August 2016, being carried out by Alan Drinkwater and Gordon Charlesworth.)