Sheep shall stately graze: prince to turn royal estate into organic farm
Charles's ambitious plans for Sandringham could tap into lucrative markets for wool and lamb
For more than half a century it has been managed meticulously by the Duke of Edinburgh, whose pioneering organic farming methods have produced Britain’s first yield of precious black truffles. But now Prince Charles is taking a leaf out of his green-fingered father’s book with ambitious plans to turn the queen’s Sandringham estate into the country’s leading organic sheep farm.
Sources close to the heir to the British throne have said he is masterminding a five-fold increase of the royal residence’s flock in an attempt to improve its profitability after Brexit. There are about 3,000 sheep roaming the 20,000-acre estate in Norfolk where the royal family traditionally spends Christmas, but the future king plans to increase that number to as many as 15,000, according to royal insiders.
“The prince has ambitious plans for Sandringham. He has enjoyed a great deal of success running Duchy Home Farm at Highgrove and turning around the fortunes of Dumfries House in Scotland, and he wants to replicate that,” a source said. “He has always been a champion of sheep and now he intends to put that thinking into practice with a huge increase in the sheep population. The overall aim is to make Sandringham one of the country’s leading organic sheep farms.”
The royal family traditionally goes on a Boxing Day shoot at Sandringham, when they hunt pheasant and partridges, but the insider said their traditional Christmas plans would not be affected. “It won’t affect Christmas – royalty, shooting and sheep can happily coexist,” the source added.
According to the prince’s website, he “has long been sensitive to the plight of sheep farmers in this country and abroad and through his initiative, the Campaign for Wool, has sought to repopularise wool as a natural fire-retardant and sustainable fabric”.
In a curious experiment in 2016, the prince buried two jerseys in a flower bed at Clarence House, his London residence, to establish the comparative qualities of wool and synthetic fibre. In 2004, he launched the Mutton Renaissance campaign to support British sheep farmers who were struggling to sell their older animals, in an attempt to get the out-of-favour meat back on to the nation’s plates.
As patron of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, he has played “an active role in helping to preserve the gene pool of British pigs, sheep and cattle”, according to the website.
As well as selling wool products, his ambitious plans could tap into the increasingly profitable UK lamb market, as farms face losing lucrative EU subsidies after Brexit. The price of lamb rose by nearly £2 to a high of £6 per kilogram in May 2018. British sheep farmers have been exploiting growing demand from the Islamic population in the UK as well as increased sales to China.
Rebecca Oborne, of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, said: “There has been increased consumer demand for lamb from the Muslim population but there are also wider global trends that have pushed up sheep meat prices in Britain. China has increased how much it has taken from Australia and New Zealand, which has pushed up prices there, which along with a lower lamb crop has driven prices up over here.”
Philip’s fungi fillip
Last month, it emerged that Prince Philip had become the first person in Britain to cultivate a successful crop of black truffles on the royal estate, which is well suited for the fungi because of its abundance of alkaline soil. They are tucked away on the “organic zone” at Sandringham, which Charles, 70, is understood to be carefully cultivating since he took over from the duke, who had managed the estate since the queen’s accession to the throne in 1952.
Although it was reported in 2014 that Charles intended to take over as part of the “gentle succession” from his mother, insiders said he only fully took the reins from the duke in 2018, following his father’s retirement from public life.
Sandringham has been the private home of four generations of sovereigns since 1862 and more than 200 people, including farmers, foresters, gamekeepers and gardeners, make a living from the estate. It is thought more people will need to be employed to manage the growing number of sheep, which will be introduced gradually.
According to the Soil Association, of which Charles is patron, organic farmers manage flocks carefully to reduce disease in newborn lambs and use clean grazing systems to minimise the need for worming. Sheep disappeared from arable farms because of artificial fertilisers and herbicides, as well as the “hassle” of keeping livestock, according to research by the Farmer’s Guardian.
Phil Stocker, the National Sheep Association chief executive, said the “tide seemed to be turning” and sheep were returning to arable farms because they were of benefit to the environment and soil health. “Well-run sheep enterprises can generate returns while building soil fertility at the same time,” he said.
– © The Daily Telegraph