Milking it

I have to admit to feeling a little odd when I set off to Simon Stott’s farm. I’ve sheared sheep, clipped them, lambed them, herded them, but milked them? The production team had to be joking. Yet, here I was on my way to help out with happy hour at the milk bar of Laund Farm in the Forest of Bowland near Preston.
Simon milks 450 Fresland sheep, 11 months of the year. Originally from Holland, they are the Holstein of the sheep world. I watched in amazement as these well-behaved sheep with their white faces and stocky bodies, lined themselves up side by side in a scaled-down version of my brother-in-law’s dairy operation.
The Stotts have bred Blue Faced Leicester sheep for years – Simon’s dad John has even recently become the president of the breeders’ association. However, in 2000 they introduced the Freslands by adding a purpose-built milking parlour with its funky hydraulic gates to the farm, the first of its type in the UK. The flock, and the business, has gone from strength to strength and now more Fresland milking parlours have appeared across the country.
I had assumed the sheep’s milk would be similar to goat’s milk. As a boy, I was raised with goat’s milk on my cornflakes. My sister has eczema so mum milked Florence and Wilma for her benefit, but we were all subjected to it. Disguised by sweet cereal it was fine, but drinking it neat was more of a challenge. Would this be the same?
Simon dipped a jug into the modest stainless steel tank and proudly filled two glasses. Not much of a wine taster, I took a big sniff. There was no strong fragrance but the smell of freshness. Then came my first sip. What a surprise!
The milk tasted very much like cow’s milk but with added cream. It’s no word of a lie to say this was some of the finest milk I had ever tasted (with no disrespect to my brother-in-law’s herd of course). It had a depth and quality that made you want more and more. I was hooked, and promptly polished off three more glasses. With a frothy white moustache, I discovered the real qualities of sheep’s milk that makes it especially attractive to today’s health-conscious shopper.
That creamy taste and texture is thanks to a higher fat content than cow’s milk – 6.7 percent to 2.5 percent respectively. However, the fat globules are much smaller so we are able to digest them more efficiently. Calcium content in ewe’s milk is higher, as are the phosphorous, sodium, magnesium, zinc and iron levels.
Big business
So what’s the catch? That would be the price. At the time of my tasting, Simon’s milk was selling for 96p a litre, compared to the low twenties price tag of cow’s milk. It’s because of the volume. One sheep produces 1.2 litres twice a day whereas cows churn out 15-20 litres per milking. In order to meet demand, Simon has had to form Sheep Milk UK, an ever-growing, non-profit co-operative with six other farms all within 50 miles of Laund Farm. This year they aim to produce 600,000 litres altogether.
Surprisingly, only 10 percent of the Stotts’ milk goes for drinking, ice-cream and yogurts. The remainder follows the 1,000-year-long tradition of sheep’s cheese making, joining the fetas and Roqueforts of France, Greece and Italy.
Another one of my preconceptions was proved wrong by my visit. This isn’t just a cottage industry. While they supply local cheese makers such as Bob Kitching of Leagrams, Lancashire, superstore giants Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are among their high-profile customers.
So, there I was thinking I’d discovered the future of milk in a relatively quaint parlour but in reality it’s been drunk for thousands of years all over the world and, according to Waitrose is the fastest-growing milk product. I honestly cannot understand why we don’t have more milking sheep in Britain, but if the sheep’s milk ice-cream is anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time…

This feature was taken from issue 29 of Countryfile Magazine. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today.


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