Fenland teenager hopes to stand out from the flock at National Sheep Association fair

YOUNG shepherd Lewis Furr will be competing for a new award at the first National Sheep Association’s Winter Fair.

He is one of the 10 contenders in the young shepherds’ competition at Melton Mowbray Market, who will judge live lambs, trim and clip sheep and be tested on diseases and general industry knowledge.

The 19-year-old assistant shepherd works for west Norfolk farmer Jim Fletcher and helps to look after a flock of 1,110 ewes and 200 ewe lamb replacements.

The part-time student at Easton College, who got his first qualification at Wisbech College, went on a short work experience programme at Mr Fletcher’s Fendale Farm, Nordelph, near Downham, about five years ago.

Lewis, who will be competing for a total of �500 in prize money at next Friday’s event, is currently on an NVQ Level 3 apprenticeship in agriculture at Easton and should complete this course in August or September.

Although he doesn’t come from a farming family “ever since I was little I thought that I wanted to be a farmer,” said Lewis, who was brought up in Chatteris, where his father was a prison officer and his mother a hairdresser.

When Wisbech College closed and courses were moved to Milton, near Cambridge, he got the opportunity to study at Easton, where he completed his NVQ Level 1 and 2.

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“Then the college offered me a Level 3 apprenticeship, which I’m now doing.

“I go to Easton one day a week. I’m doing quite well and really enjoying work on the farm and working with the sheep,” he added. In April last year, he had the chance to join the long-running exchange programme organised by the college to the Czech Republic, where he spent two weeks working on farms.

He has also been gaining experience by working with cattle for Mr Fletcher’s father, John, at his farm at Manea, where he runs suckler cattle and rears stores.

Lewis, who has been encouraged by his employer to take part in the competition, which is sponsored by Mole Valley Farmers, had also been on other training courses including sheep shearing.

“We shear all our sheep and do a fair bit of contracting as well.

“We sent him on a couple of British Wool Marketing Board training programmes last year to learn to shear and he’s really picked that up,” said Mr Fletcher, who has a 130-acre Norfolk County Council holding and also has another 150 acres.

“While he has been here, I’ve tried to get him on a few local farms to do various different things. I’d hate somebody to say: ‘I love sheep’ and then never try anything else.”

He has worked on the Welney Wetlands helping with their cattle for a few weeks.

“At the moment, there aren’t a lot of young shepherds coming forward, so it is a bit of a major problem for the industry,” said Mr Fletcher, who took the tenancy 12 years ago and has another 150 acres of council land.

“It is very difficult to get extra land and it is part of the reason that we went down the sheep route because we moved here as arable farm with no livestock at all.

“We’ve stuck with the sheep and it has expanded at quite an alarming rate There’s a lot of grassland about including river banks but no animals.

“We go to nearly a 20-mile radius with bits and bobs. “We go out to King’s Lynn one way, and out to Ely, out to Chatteris and the other side of Wisbech as well,” said Mr Fletcher.

He also finishes lambs on stubble turnips. “The thing about stubble turnips which we absolutely love is that they’re so cheap.

“If you put them on nice black land, they don’t need any nitrogen. The seed costs �5 an acre and that’s it. It is a waiting game.

“We’ve just sent in our last 127 lambs to the abattoir last Sunday and they killed heavier than we’ve ever had any lots before,” said M r Fletcher, who markets his stock through the co-operative, Anglia Quality Meats.

One problem for livestock producers was the lack of local slaughter facilities.

“The nearest abattoir which will take any numbers is Blake’s of Norwich but they won’t take the numbers when we send 200 or 300 at a time, so they have to go out of the county,” he added.

Mr Fletcher and his father leave tomorrow to join a party of eastern region farmers, who are spending 12 days touring New Zealand, as part of an initiative led by Richard Rampton and organised and supported by the Landskills East programme.

It was more than a quarter of a century ago that agricultural subsidies were scrapped in New Zealand and Mr Fletcher, who runs his sheep enterprise without too much benefit from the single farm payments, is keen to look at possible alternative systems.