Next up in our #tenwithtom series, shepherding duo Flora Searson and Lewis Steer from the Dartmoor Shepherd.
Rising stars of the rural business world, Lewis and Flora started the Dartmoor Shepherd as university graduates and haven't looked back since. Having entered the world of farming in an unconventional way, Dartmoor Shepherd has grown (not only to a flock of 800 ancient-breed rare sheep) but to retail a range of luxury interior items and accessories including rugs, doorstops, bean bags, footstools and handbags from the heart of Devon.
As one of our trusted, sustainable suppliers of quality sheepskin rugs, we've caught up with Lewis and Flora (and Moss the collie) to find out more about their product range, the way their business operates sustainably and what it's really like to be a shepherd in the year 2020.
TR: Tell us a bit about The Dartmoor Shepherd and how you started the business?
FS: "The Dartmoor Shepherd retails luxury sheepskin rugs and interior items from our own flocks of native Dartmoor sheep. First and foremost we are shepherds but we also run a commercial business, though it didn’t all start in the most generic way…
As we both attended different universities (Lewis the Royal Agricultural University and myself (Flora) Bath Spa University) we were keen after spending 3 years apart to be closer to each other again. Lewis was offered a good job in Herefordshire however, he had always dreamt of being a farmer and had built up a small flock of approx. 20 Greyface Dartmoor sheep on his parents' neighbouring land in Devon. I had spent the last three years helping with the sheep when we were home from University and I had thoroughly enjoyed it too. Although the job offer in Hereford was appealing, Lewis kept returning to farming in his head, however, it's not the kind of industry one just breaks into. With no family farm, equipment or guidance it all seemed very daunting, if not impossible to follow our hearts and start up from scratch. However, we felt we had to give it a go and being 21-year-old graduates we had little to lose. So we returned to Devon together, I got a part time job in media communications in Exeter, and Lewis worked occasionally for a bookkeeper at horse races and on a shearing gang to help fund the start of our business. From there it grew. We now both work full time on the business and employ a part time shepherd to help with our flocks. We retail online and have just opened our first retail site in Chagford, on Dartmoor.
We like to think not coming from a farming background is both our biggest weakness and our greatest strength. Simple things like not having any equipment, a tractor, trailer, or even a 4 wheel drive vehicles are all hurdles we've had to overcome. However, over time we have been able to purchase these things slowly. Though we still face difficulties that people who have a family farm would rarely understand (for example we have no barn except a tiny 16th century granite shed which is still our farm base with no running water or electricity, and the fact our farm house is a flat with no garden or parking in the centre of Chagford; a Dartmoor town) there are also so many positives.
Not coming from a farming background gives us a certain edge because we see everything with a fresh pair of eyes, our decisions are our own. Whilst scary at times, this does mean we can try new approaches."
"We are the last shepherds in the world to keep Dartmoor's three native, rare breed Longwool sheep."
- Flora Searson, Dartmoor Shepherd.
"Our sheep are rare because they are slow growing and in our fast paced food industry people want lambs that fatten quickly. They also only tend to have one lamb and they are some of the heaviest wool breeds in the world and we get charged more to shear them because of this. We actually lose money shearing our flocks now, the only reason we shear them is for their welfare. However, we have turned all these negatives into positives that fit our farm diversification. They are slow growing, but in our opinion, this makes the meat taste far superior as they are allowed to grow and mature naturally on 100% pasture, producing a very sustainable meat. The fact their wool is so heavy means they create the most beautiful and unique sheepskins which we sell as a by-product of our hogget/lamb and use to create a large range of both interior items, gifts and accessories".
TR: What’s the best thing about surrounding yourself and working with nature daily?
FS: "Dartmoor can be a wild and harsh climate to work outdoors in. It gets approx. 3x the rainfall of Exeter, our nearest city. Some of our land is well over 1000ft above sea level and when the wind gets up it is crazy. I remember one year the snow fell so deep our sheep couldn't get down to the grass, but we couldn't get the truck up the steep hill onto the moor, so we loaded a sledge full of hay and pulled it up the field to them. As we don't have a barn we lamb all our sheep outdoors in late March and through April - even then the weather can be difficult. I remember one night at 3am we were driving our quad bike and trailer around in a hailstorm trying to get the new born lambs and their mother's into our stone shed. We ran out of space so we opened up our stock trailer and borrowed our landlords horse trailer so they could shelter. However, the weather is what makes Dartmoor so dramatic and fun to work outside on. It definitely keeps us on our toes!"
TR: Describe your typical working day…
FS: "Our days are so different from one day to the next. Although we are guided by the seasons as to what shepherding tasks are demanded of us we also have a commercial business to run. One day can see us in a meeting with a wholesaler, stocking a shop, planning our marketing material or attending shows in London with our sheepskin products and the next day we can be outside on the moors all day tending our flocks."
TR: What is the most exciting thing about being a shepherd?
FS: "The best thing about being a shepherd is getting to work outdoors everyday. There is something very ancient about shepherding; some of the tasks and shepherding methods we use have been carried out by farmers for hundreds of years. We are passionate about farming our land in harmony with nature, which can be difficult when you have sixteen different landlords and they all have different opinions on how they want their land managed. But being able to make changes to the land like planting trees and laying hedges and slowly seeing nature thrive because of your actions, that’s pretty exciting and satisfying."
FS: "We are the last shepherds in the world to farm all three of Dartmoor’s native breed sheep commercially anymore. They are The Whiteface Dartmoor, The Greyface Dartmoor and the Devon and Cornwall Longwool. We are passionate about growing the numbers of our rare breed Dartmoor sheep. It would be tragic for them to die out when the Dartmoor landscape was once dominated with them. By creating a demand for them through our products we are creating a lifeline for them, yet, they have also been a lifeline for us. They have allowed us to fulfil our dreams of shepherding on Dartmoor, we would never have been able to break into the industry without adding value and diversifying.
Our Dartmoor breeds all became prevalent hundreds of years ago when Britain began making its fortune from wool. Our nearest city (Exeter) was one of the largest exporters of what was known as serge cloth in the world. This cloth was made locally using the wool from the local longwool breeds. Our current flocks stem from those longwool breeds. These breeds have called Dartmoor home for centuries and are as much a part of this landscape as the granite dry stonewalls, raging rivers and windy Dartmoor."
"Its an honour to think we are playing our part in working with these breeds to farm in a sustainable and regenerative way with nature to help safeguard Dartmoor for the future - just as so many shepherds have done so for hundreds of years before us."
- Flora Searson, Dartmoor Shepherd.
TR: Why is sustainability important to The Dartmoor Shepherd?
FS: "As shepherds we are not just the caretakers of our flocks but stewards of the landscape in which we farm. Shepherds have been intrinsically linked to the landscape for thousands of years…they are even in the bible! We feel it is an honour to be the stewards of our own little piece of the world at this moment in time. As we shepherd within the landscape of the Dartmoor National Park, sustainability and sustainable management forms the core of what we do. From our holistic grazing practices- which mean we utilise our ancient native Dartmoor flocks to graze the permanent pastures of Dartmoor in such a way that we create soil and subsequently draw carbon from the atmosphere and lock it into the ground - through to the planting of hedgerows and citing of beehives on our land, we ensure the sustainable enhancement of the land at every turn.
We are ardent believers that livestock, when used in the correct manner can help heal the damage of the past and act as one of the most vital tools to address the world’s climate and environmental problems. All our sheep are 100% pasture fed and farmed to organic principles.
Our sustainable ethos is carried through all that we do from the field to the end product. All our products are handmade in the South West, all our packaging is completely recyclable and as our business grows we are providing a lifeline, not only to these rare breeds through the expansion of our own flocks, but to other famers who keep these rare breeds for their wool and hides, and who farm in a responsible way."
TR: What has lockdown taught you and what new ways of living are you excited to maintain as things start to ease?
FS: "Covid-19 hit our business hard like - so many people it stopped our income in its tracks. Although we sell online, the majority of our income came from attending shows and events across the country selling our sheepskin products, we attend shows such a Bath Christmas Market, Country Living London Festive Fair, The Spirit of Christmas, Badminton Horse Trials and Chelsea Flower Show. However, these were all cancelled due to Covid-19. As lockdown lifted in July a lease came up in a small local shop in Chagford where we live. We thought we may as well try and set up a shop and see if it could help make up for the short fall in sales from our shows. We got the keys in early August and 4 days later we were open, after days spent painting and decorating it. We were really keen to make the most of the tourists being around and feared another lockdown, so we wanted to get it open as soon as we could. So far it has been a great success and we have had such positive feedback from our customers.
We have focused a lot of our online presence during lockdown and are starting to build a community of wonderful followers and this is something we’d love to grow and keep up, even after lockdown eases. Lewis has even started blogging - even he had some spare time during the pandemic."
TR: What three things could you not live without?
FS: "Farming wise it would have to be:
Our working sheepdog Moss – though perhaps we’d be a lot fitter if we had to run around after the sheep all the time!
A good pair of working boots.
A shepherd’s crook – these are not just for show they are actually so useful!"
TR: What does the next six months hold for you?
FS: "Earlier I talked about how we lose money shearing our sheep and many farmers across the country burned their wool this year as they get so little for it. To us this is so sad, wool helped build our nation, wool is the most incredible sustainable fibre. It has been used to make human clothing since the stone age, it's completely renewable, 100% natural, biodegradable, breathable and keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer - wasting it seems criminal. In an age where fast fashion and the fibre industry is damaging our planet critically, wool seems like an answer to some of the problems. Our next challenge is to use the wool from our own flocks to make our own Dartmoor tweed from our own sheep. We are hoping to also be able to buy the wool for a fair price off other Dartmoor farmers to help them make money from their fleeces."