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lamb with a conscience

(september 2011)

There are a growing number of lamb producers who have built a production process around the welfare of their flock. This is one of the happier food industry scenarios whereby the product not only tastes better but these farmers can command a better price for their toil and the sheep get a dignified and happy quality of life.

You cannot dispute the credentials of Jan and John Angus whose family has some six generations of history in the Eden Valley. Sheep farming in the region can be traced back to 1843 for the Angus clan. Their branded is an evolution of Hutton Vale Lamb is an evolution of Border Leicester and Dorset lambs being introduced to the existing Merino flock and the subsequent introduction of White Suffolk into the flock early this century.

With such a long connection to the land, a certain amount of wisdom is handed down through the generations and Jan explains that if you watch what the land is doing, watch what the sheep look like and err on the side of caution at all times with stocking levels, you will have happy lambs and maintain pastures in pristine condition. This ensures lambs are fed and able to roam on pasture.

Jan and John don't limit their involvement to just the process of raising the lamb but follow through with measures that ensure the lambs have a good and dignified end to their days.

A lot of mass produced, commercial, "fatter lambs" are finished intensively to prepare them for worst possible scenario of three days off feed and water; a day before transport, a day during transport and a day at the abattoirs. This is something that the Angus' don't do, the lambs are fed up to the night before and off to the abattoirs for a first-cab-off-the-rank, 6.30am "appointment". This keeps stress to a minimum as sheep off feed or held for too long in yards are stressed; and as Jan says the most important thing for her livestock is not just a good life, but a good death as well.

Spear Creek Dorper is an interesting lamb from the Flinders Rangers. Jamie McTaggart comes from five generations of wool producers. He picked the Dorper which is a hardy fast growing breed of South African origin specifically for its suitability to his land. The breed grazes and is naturally seasoned on the salt bush pasture of the region. Jamie acknowledges the fragility of the country and says that if the lambs are fat then he has his stocking levels correct and never runs anywhere near capacity on this front. It is a land care and welfare before profit approach.

He also is clearly reacting against 15 years of shearing experience where both he and the livestock were doused with chemicals, and the sheep (not him!) subjected to extensive mulesing (a common practice of removing sections of skin around the sheep's tail; often this painful process is performed with no anesthetic).

With the Dorper flock there is no need for crutching, shearing, jetting (chemical treatment for FlyStrike), the aforementioned mulesing or any other chemical inputs. This means nominal interference with the animals through handling and therefore reduced stress levels.

Phil and Michele Prince were driven to market their own branded lamb after a trip to market and watching their lamb go for a price that really didn't reflect the "welfare first" effort that was being put into producing a Kelvale Merino and Ashmore White Suffolk line that they hand feed in the Clare Valley.

Their Savannah Lamb is 100% antibiotic and hormone free; if grain needs to be used then it is from their crop, thus they have a 100% traceable product. They have planted 10 000 trees to decrease the salinity levels of the property which the Hill River runs through. The trees provide wind breaks and shade for their livestock and they use hay bales to form additional protection against the elements during lambing season.

They are moving towards a bare breach sheep (which means no mulesing), with the introduction of superior genetics because as Phil says, "Animals respond to kindness." The proof of which he feels is in the huge increase in lamb numbers, as a result of taking steps to ensure his livestock are happy. They don't use either dogs or prods in stock management as this is another source of stress.

This ethos goes right through to the stocks' final days. Michele refuses to double-decker-transport her livestock (which is a major reason why some lamb are kept off feed for 24 hours before transport, to eliminate the effluent being dropped to the bottom level of the transport truck). She transports the lamb herself in small weekly batches to ensure there is no stress from over crowding or excessive time spent in holding pens.

An independently audited and certified production system devised by Livestock Central falls under the banner of Red Star Gourmet. By buying Red Star lamb you are ensured that a multifaceted system which encompasses low stress production and transport techniques, quality and health guidelines and environmental issues has been followed.

Veterinarian Rick White is part of this team of multifaceted professionals which includes an agronomist and nutritionals. Their system ensures ewes are in top nutritional condition prior to joining (that's a vets way of saying what mummies and daddies do to make babies!); that lambs are only delivered during peak pasture; and weaning is undertaken slowly with a feeding regime that lowers stress. The cornerstone of the program is the protocols surrounding nutritional requirements of weaned lambs. The idea is that the less finishing time the lamb needs then the less the methane output will be, so the program encompasses a critical environmental concern in the area of greenhouse gas emissions.

There's an abundance of ethically produced lamb in our local markets so it's up to you to ask a few questions before you buy.

rolled lamb neck with almond and rosemary, mushy mint peas, lemon potato

serves 4 to 6

lamb
lamb neck, deboned
(For searing)
lots of cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
juice of half a lemon
30 ml extra virgin olive oil

paste
1 teaspoon sea salt
60 g almond, toasted for 10 mins in 180°C oven
8 sprigs rosemary
3 clove garlic, peeled
¼ bunch parsley leaves and stems
½ cup pitted green olives
2 white anchovy
25 ml extra virgin olive oil

Preheat a fan forced oven to 140°C.

Trim lamb neck and lay out flat, skin side down then season with the teaspoon of salt.

Blend almond, rosemary, garlic, parsley, olive, anchovy and olive oil in a food processor to a chunky paste.

Make a straight cut from the rack end of the meat to butterfly the chop. Don't cut all the way through the meat; you are just trying to "open up" the chop. Smear paste on the lamb and roll up. Truss with butchers net/string. Season the outside and place in oven for 3 to 3 and ½ hours.

Remove from oven and place in a preheated heavy based pan over a medium heat. Season with remaining sea salt and cracked pepper and sear all sides to render lamb skin and fat. Remove and rest for 20 mins. Carve and drizzle with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice.

lemon potato
1 kg waxy potato (Dutch cream, bintje or nicola)
juice of 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 sprigs rosemary stripped
4 whole garlic cloves

Par cook potato in salted boiling water from cold (about 12 mins after simmer is reached). Drain and allow to cool slightly. Cut potatoes lengthwise into quarters and throw into a bowl, then douse with lemon juice, rosemary and sea salt. Bash whole garlic cloves and toss in with potatoes. Transfer to an oven tray and roast at 200°C for 20 mins.

mushy mint peas
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1½ cup peas (podded)
handful mint
sea salt and black pepper

Over a medium flame in a heavy based sauté pan sweat onion until glassy in butter, add garlic, salt and pepper. Sweat until garlic is aromatic while stirring. Add peas and sauté for a few minutes. Add a splash of water and pop a lid on for about 2 mins. Add mint and stab mix until mushy, but don't puree, leave some texture.