Word of mouth: the farmer converting us to sheep milk

Date:10-05-2013 07:58:03 read:8

Word of mouth: the farmer converting us to sheep milk

Rose Prince discovers the joys and the health benefits of sheep’s milk from farmer Crispin Tweddell.

Farmer  Crispin Tweddell
Crispin Tweddell: 'We have a very simple view: we rear sheep to the best standard to make the best milk’ Photo: Nick Dawe

Thomas Hardy would have witnessed just such a scene: the early morning milking of sheep in the shelter of a barn on a hill farm in the Blackmore Vale, the area that the novelist and poet called the ‘Valley of the Little Dairies’. Under the magnificence of Melbury Hill, which by Dorset standards is a mountain at more than 800 ft, Orchid Meadow Farm is, however, an oddity in terms of farming activity. Few farms produce ewe’s milk in Britain, and the Tweddell family, who have lived here for 20 years, only began farming dairy sheep in 2000. ‘The land is hilly and un-ploughable, and so is ideal for sheep,’ Crispin Tweddell says. ‘I had eaten some sheep’s milk cheese and thought it stunning.’ The Tweddells supply the milk to make Spenwood, a pecorino-type cheese, and the acclaimed Wigmore, a soft, bloomy rind cheese, and, since 2008, when they bought the Woodlands Dairy from a fellow Dorset farmer, they have also produced a natural, creamy organic yogurt from sheep’s milk.

The sheep, a flock of 1,200, are Frieslands, Dutch in origin and the sheep equivalent of the Friesian cow. Large, with long dreadlocks and bony, Romanesque faces, they lie close and snug together in the barns. (There are also a few ‘Dorset’ sheep in the flock, similar in stature and colour, but distinguishable by a fringe of curls above their eyes.) ‘Meat sheep need to be out on grass a lot, or all, of the time, but dairy sheep have to come in at night, and so we need to feed them cereals and silage,’ Tweddell says. The feed (which comes from their second, arable farm) is produced organically. ‘We look after our sheep incredibly well. In fact, we know more about this kind of sheep farming than the people who set the organic standards.’

The sheep ‘lamb’ three times a year. The young are taken away after four days so the ewes’ milk can be harvested twice a day (female lambs are destined to be reared as replacement dairy sheep while the males are raised for their meat. ‘Our meat sheep are getting a reputation for quality at Frome market,’ Tweddell says. ‘They have what is called a tight skin, not too flabby, which is popular with buyers.’) The majority of the milk produced on the farm is used to make yogurt in a simple, natural process. ‘We “hot pot” the yogurt, meaning after the milk and [bacterial] culture are mixed, the yogurt is set in the pot and not in a vat,’ Tweddell says, ‘so it has the texture of a jelly.’

Sheep’s milk yogurt has a natural creaminess, and also has the advantage over cow’s milk in that it is stable when heated, so can be added without curdling to soups or gratins in place of single cream. While goat’s milk yogurt can have a very pronounced flavour, sheep’s milk is mild and floral, with just a suggestion of ripeness. Another benefit of sheep’s milk is that it contains a higher level of the essential vitamins (including vitamin D) that are needed for us to absorb the calcium in the milk, yet the fats are not those that raise cholesterol. Its lactose content, which is lower than cow’s milk, has also drawn legions of people suffering intolerance to switch to sheep’s milk yogurt and cheese.

The Tweddells are setting an example of how sheep dairy farming can be done successfully on a large scale.

Yet they see their role in modest terms. ‘We have a very simple view: the farm should rear sheep to the best standard to make the best milk. That is what makes the finest yogurt.’

Woodlands Dairy

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