By Debbie James

A majestic oak tree towers above a hen house at Victoria Shervington-Jones’s free range egg farm. On closer inspection, it is not acorns adorning its branches but dozens of chickens, surveying their ranging area from on high.

“They love roosting in that tree,’’ says Victoria, this year's Wales Woman Farmer of the Year, who produces eggs from 40,000 hens at Ty Mawr Farm in the Gwent village of St Brides.

Poultry have been part of the farming enterprise at Ty Mawr since her late father, David Shervington, established the business 50 years ago.

At one point, there were 100,000 hens in a caged system and there were also broilers but in 2000 the family switched to free range.

“We could see that free range was where the market was heading but it was very much a niche market when we started,’’ Victoria recalls.

Two purpose-built flat-deck poultry sheds were constructed within a six year period – one for 12,000 hens and the other for 16,000. These were followed in 2006 by another 12,000-hen unit, when a redundant cattle shed was converted.

That shed was no longer in use because the family had sold their 650-head dairy herd after the death of Victoria’s father from motor neurone disease in December 2009.

“It was one of the hardest decisions to sell the cows but we couldn’t have kept everything going after dad died,’’ Victoria reflects.

She was very attached to the milking herd because, after leaving school at 16, she immersed herself in the dairy side of the business.

Four years at the Royal Agriculture College, Cirencester, followed, where she studied for a degree in agriculture and animal management. After graduating she travelled the world and spent six months working on a 3,000-cow dairy farm in New Zealand, before coming home to farm. Her mother, Ingrid, is still very much involved in the business.

The free-range egg enterprise, Country Fresh Eggs, has been hugely successful; it employs 16 people and supplies 700 shops, hotels and restaurants, ranging from local retailers to the Celtic Manor Hotel.

Forty per cent of its eggs are sold to Tesco.

“Tesco sends the order through at 5am and the eggs are on the shelves that evening,’’ says Victoria, NFU Cymru /Principality Building Society Wales Woman Farmer of the Year 2017.

The business has three vans which make deliveries five days a week – 700 calls in a delivery round that stretches from Bristol in the east to Neath in the west.

The eggs are produced by Lohmann Brown hens and, for the first time this year, Novogens. Lohmanns are renowned for producing large eggs but Victoria is keen to get a wider spread of egg sizes.

“Eighty per cent of the eggs we sell to Tesco are large eggs but we wanted to also introduce a breed that would produce medium eggs to provide a bigger cross-section of sizes to supply the market,’’ Victoria explains.

The birds, supplied by Shropshire-based Country Fresh Pullets, arrive as 16-week-olds and are housed for four weeks to acclimatise to the laying, feeding and watering areas in the sheds. They are given access to the ranging area at 20 weeks.

The hens are on the farm until they are 72 weeks old, at which point the quality of their eggs deteriorate and they are sent for pet food.

The egg grading and packing process was revolutionised in 2005 when the business invested £250,000 in an egg packing grader, 40 per cent funded by a Welsh Government grant.

The business made a further investment last year, in a £20,000 egg packing machine for the 16,000-bird shed; this reduced grading and packing from a full day to just two hours.

Victoria’s aim is to expand the flock further in the future, by establishing another shed, and to expand the customer base.

She has confidence in the free-range sector. “The whole insecticide issue with eggs from overseas will only serve to reinforce the message that it is important to buy British.’’