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Producer of the Month: Phil Pearse

Producer of the Month: Phil Pearse

Producer of the Month: Phil Pearse

We take a look into the daily life of Lamb Farmer Phil Pearse, who is part of the coop farming network.

Watch this short video about Phil:

There’s a strict hierarchy among Phil Pearse’s sheepdogs. And as he climbs on the quad bike he uses to travel between the fields in Axminster, Devon, where he breeds lambs for Co-op, it’s pretty clear who’s top dog.

Doug’s the eldest, and climbs into the comfy-looking box at the front of the bike before immediately falling asleep. Chunk, Doug’s son, sits at Phil’s left-hand side, with Rei on his right and Fly — the youngest — squeezing in between.

‘When my old sheepdog, Flop, died, everyone swapped places,’ Phil says. ‘Doug took Flop’s box up front, then the others all moved round a spot. They don’t always realise I’m supposed to be the one in charge…’

One man and his quad

Taking over the farm from his dad, Frank, he comes from a family of farmers stretching all the way back to 1650.

After studying engineering, Phil returned to farm the sheep. Meanwhile, his brother Danny grows the wheat, barley and oats that feed Phil’s 900 ewes and keeps the farm self-contained.

Phil uses sheepdogs because, he says, it makes for even tastier lamb. ‘You can flap your arms at a sheep all you like, but it won’t move,’ Phil explains, leaning on the Bo Peep-style crook it turns out shepherds actually use in real life. ‘And if you herded them up on a quad bike, they’d get really stressed. Using dogs means the sheep are happier, which means I’m happier. And a happy lamb is a tasty one.’

To make sure Phil’s lamb is the best quality possible, the sheep stay outside all year round, except for a few weeks during lambing season in spring. The ewes are introduced to a ram that has a marking harness attached to his chest, and if a ewe has a patch of colour on her back, Phil knows she’ll produce up to four lambs — called a ‘crop’. After being born, the lambs are put outside after 24 hours. If it’s really wet or snowing, they’re given little plastic macs to wear. ‘The ewes sometimes think they’re bags of feed and try to have a nibble,’ Phil says. Then they stay on the farm for at least three months before being sent to slaughter and landing on Co-op’s shelves around five days later. It means that between June and January, all Co-op’s lamb is British.

Born free

Phil’s flocks are free to roam — except when it’s time for the dogs to do their work. He shows me how it’s done, pointing to a field about half a mile away before sending signals to the dogs using a whistle.

In the distance, the scattered blobs of white gradually form into a mass of wool as Chunk and Rei start herding. Then, a few minutes later, I hear a rumble like distant thunder, as all the sheep come racing down the narrow Devonshire lane and into the next field to Phil’s calls of ‘Come-bye!’

Mastering Skills 

It’s like a real-life One Man and His Dog — and pretty impressive, although Phil says it hasn’t always been so easy. ‘At first, Doug used to just run through the sheep and scatter them everywhere,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘It took him two years to start doing what I told him to.’

As a young farmer supplying produce to Co-op, Phil, 33, is a member of the Co-op Farming Pioneers programme, which supports young producers and gets them together to share ideas and network. ‘Otherwise, I’d never get to meet new people,’ he laughs.

He’s also a member of Co-op’s farming lamb group, a collection of farmers from southwest England who meet up to talk meat and learn more about the supply chain.

‘When someone says, “I tried your lamb, and it was better than any I’ve had before,” it’s a great feeling,’ Phil says. ‘I want my lamb to taste as good as possible, so I’m experimenting with different ways of feeding — they’re currently on a grass-only diet so I can see if it affects the taste. Everybody loves a good roast, don’t they?’

The Good Life 

Beautiful Devonshire countryside, a quad bike commute and a doggy biker gang instead of colleagues — I have to be honest, Phil’s job sounds brilliant. But there must be a downside, right?

‘Well, it’s a 24/7 job, and if it’s raining outside, you can’t say, “Hmm, I think I’ll stay indoors today,”’ Phil says. ‘The sheep need to be fed and have their feet, teeth and udders checked for health. We weigh them, take measurements to see which ewes are producing the fastest-growing lambs, and plan the breeding very carefully.

‘I like to see problems as challenges rather than something that will cause me stress, but obviously I prefer it when the sun’s shining and everything’s running smoothly.’

The sheep safely in their field, Phil hops onto his quad bike. The dogs quickly join him, Doug flopping into his box again as they head back to the farmhouse. It’s great to know Phil’s lambs have such a good life before arriving in Co-op stores. Even if it’s not quite as nice as Doug’s.