By Debbie James

Farmland rent prices occupy Max Welton’s thoughts as he seeks to expand his pedigree flock of Southdowns.

Competition for land in rural Carmarthenshire is intense so, with even the poorer grassland commanding £100 an acre, his expansion plans are on hold for now.

What sets Max apart from every other farmer in this position is his age; this is a young man who acquired his first Southdown ram at the tender age of seven years and now, aged just 15, runs 22 pedigree breeding ewes at his parents’ farm near Llangadog.

Max’s interest in sheep began long before he bought his first ram. His parents, Steve and Penny, have a large commercial flock and young Max used pester power to persuade them to buy him three Zwartble ewes when he was seven.

He then raided his piggy bank and bought a Southdown ram to grow his flock.

Max bred from these for a few years but, with little demand for the offspring for breeding coupled with the need to feed the Zwartbles throughout the year, he sold the sheep and replaced them with four Southdown ewes.

“I knew quite a bit about Southdowns because we had family friends who had these so I thought I would have a go at breeding rams from Southdowns,’’ he recalls.

“They suited what I was looking for in a sheep because they thrive off hardly anything and are easy to handle and care for.’’

Max says the Southdown is a good mother and protective of her lambs. “The ewe is milky and although she won’t go for you in the pen she is very cautious about having anyone near her lambs.’’

Lambing is also straightforward. “We never have to assist with lambing,’’ says Max.

In the spring of 2017, his family relocated from Hereford, where they had been renting a farm, to Llanddeusant near Llangadog, where they bought 280-acre Gilfach Farm.

Max tups the flock from September 30, keeping the rams with the ewes for four weeks. The flock mostly scans at over 180 per cent.

The ewes lamb indoors from February 10. Because they require so little input, Max manages the lambing before and after school with his parents keeping an eye on the animals for him during the day.

Ewes and lambs are turned out soon after lambing and left alone until weaning. Some lambs are sold off their mothers if they are good enough, to the abattoir; later in the season lambs are sold through a market.

Apart from the lambing period, the flock doesn’t take up too much of Max’s time.

“I check on the sheep but never really have to touch them and I hardly ever feed them.

“When I do give them a bit of feed, before lambing, I do this in the morning then get all the other jobs done when I get home from school.’’

Max has already made a name for himself among Southdown breeders. In 2017, he won the Southdown Sheep Society’s newcomer flock competition; also the Paynter Wool Trophy for the flock with the best wool.

He now plans to increase numbers but will first need to find more land – Steve and Penny have a flock of 1200 Lleyn, Poll Dorset and Cheviot ewes. They don’t charge Max rent for his ewes – he provides labour in return - but are drawing the line at further expansion.

“I’m hoping to take on some land but it isn’t easy to come by and the figures have to stack up,’’ says Max.

He admits he first went into breeding Southdowns as a hobby but quickly came to realise the potential of the breed.

“Southdowns were the original terminal breed. Their popularity dwindled but now people are rediscovering their potential for finishing on forage-based systems.

“They are fast growing and can be sold off their mothers without the need for supplementary feed.’’