Tails of Eastern promise

Their breed-name refers to part of Namibia where they have been kept for centuries. Damara fat-tailed sheep originate from Egypt. The meat has a unique taste, regularly used in traditional Arab cuisine and is now in high demand from ethnic groups in the UK.
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Thousands of miles from home – and in dramatically different conditions, Anglesey member, Peter Williams is among the first to breed this stock here.

“So-far-so-good,” Peter says confidently. “Ask me if it’s still going well in two months’ time.” Nearly a year into the practical project, the first formal report explains they’re easy to feed and grow at an acceptable rate. So far they’ve displayed a resistance to disease and pests. Breeding has been problem-free. They boast the distinctive large hindquarters and chunky, tapered tail – sought after in their market where they’re worth three or four times the value of typical Welsh lamb.

Supported by the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) and the Welsh Government’s agriculture support resource, Farming Connect, Peter Williams’ project-partner Bedwyr Jones is a hill farmer from the Snowdonia foothills who also farms on Anglesey. They are also joined by former government vet, Tricia Sutton, she shows Suffolks, she’s Treasurer of the Sheep Veterinary Society and hails from a Shropshire farm background. Tricia is monitoring the health and welfare of the project.

From a wider and long-term government perspective, one aspect of the initiative is to further improve the UK stock’s genetic pool. A reducing number of around 60 breed-types now exist in Western Europe and problems will arise if diversity isn’t built-in. There are 1,000 breeds worldwide. “There’s 50 fat-tailed breed-types alone,” says Peter. “We’ve chosen one which is already proven to be prolific and versatile.”

Peter Williams farms 80 acres in Anglesey. Normal stock-levels on his land have been some 300 ewes and some store cattle. Soil type here is sandy calcareous silt and loams. Dramatic Snowdon looms distantly across the Menai Strait, but inland Anglesey gently undulates with exposed limestone outcrops here and there. It’s livestock country: grass grows well on an oceanic climate delivering some 153mm of rain and an average humidity of 84 per cent.

“It’s a niche market…” Peter explains, “Not for the UK supermarket shelves (yet?) – But we’re looking at specialists such as Harrods and Fortnum’s who know their discerning customers. It’s a big dish at Muslim festivals. We’re gaining interest from the Middle Eastern embassies looking to serve Damara lamb at major events.” Peter adds, “The meat is lean and juicy and it has a distinctive flavour. The tail-fat renders-down in cooking plays a part in flavour and basting. We’re still in the process of understanding preparation and recipe.”

It’s not just for the connoisseurs. Despite the name, fat tailed sheep meat is low in saturated fats and offers the health benefits of a higher Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty-acid ratio. Peter and his colleagues in the trial are looking to involve local meat-specialist chefs to perfect the cuisine-end of the project. “That we’re looking into this shows how it’s going well. We’re not ready yet to make any announcements about celebrity chefs, but we’d like to work with a Welsh meat specialist to appeal both to the niche market and also to raise awareness in the general audience.”

Peter’s making good use of an international farming career. He’s spend several years in Saudi Arabia. “Sixty miles outside Riyadh, I was working with over 30,000 sheep: New Zealand Romneys crossed with the fat-tailed’ – all zero-grazed, of course.” Subsequently Peter worked with sheep in Australia and New Zealand before returning to North Wales in 1993.

The Damaras are as well travelled – on other continents, over a very long time. Their origins are thought to be the Nile delta. They were spread into the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent and as far south as the more fertile areas of Namibia bounded by the Namib and Kalahari deserts, west and east, respectively. Consequently with a millennium or so head-start on European species, there are some 50 breeds of fat tailed sheep. And they’re physically built for their climate: the distinctive tail stores vital nutrient for the dry-season, and there’s no fleece – they have hair which enables better temperature regulation. Heads are small – with a domed nose to resist sun-burning and long floppy ears provide ocular sun-shade. “Some say they look like goats, but they don’t really,” Peter says, “They look like what they are!”

The test, of course, has been acclimatisation in North Wales. “We know how resilient they are in extreme conditions. Our main concerned has been about the effects of temperate dampness: potential lameness, respiratory-issues and scour (livestock diarrhoea).”

“We were able to import embryos and semen from Australia as they have a similar health status to the UK. A small number of pure bred lambs were born in the first week of May from implanted embryos into surrogate mothers. Appropriately Lleyn and also Romney and Texel crosses lambed about 10 days later. “We impregnated 50 and had a 75 per cent success-rate.” Damaras can lamb more than once annually, “Not quite as many times as Dorsets,” says Peter, “We think we can get a second lambing in. ‘Next stage will be to work-out the best timing. Lambs grew heavy to start with,” Peter comments. This may be another dry-season genetic trait.

“Over half the new stock are male so they will need to be marketed while we continue to look at breeding both pures and crosses – and Bedwyr will play a vital role here,” Peter explains. “All of a sudden the project’s expanded into longer-term flock-management and also downstream marketing.”