Olly and Rachel Walker, Essebeare Farm, Devon

About the farm

Essebeare Farm, Witheridge, Devon is run by Olly and Rachel Walker. It is a 229-acre farm, situated 200m above sea level on a silty clay loam soil.  Olly and Rachel have been tenants at Essebeare Farm since 2015.

They have been members of Pasture for Life for 4 years and the cattle and beef enterprises have also been certified for this period. The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2018.

Before taking on Essebeare Farm, Olly and Rachel were based in Scotland and Olly made an effort to visit PfL farms to learn about their farming systems. Seeing pasture-based systems work in Scotland and North England gave him assurance that it could work in Devon.


Initially, in 2015, Olly stocked the farm with 500 ewe lambs, from a known upland flock with good genetics. He used to produce around 700 lambs per year from grass which were sold as stores. But this system was difficult to sustain due to the high labour requirement, too many lambs carried over winter on a wet farm and worm burdens on the pasture. Therefore, numbers have been significantly  reduced to 170 ewes in the flock now, and he finishes all his lambs on farm. This has led to a more profitable sheep enterprise. The flock are a mixture of Lleyns and Exlanas, although he is moving back to Lleyns gradually as they are a slightly larger ewe (average 56kg) and he has outlets for their wool.

There are also 40 suckler cows, plus followers on the farm.

Pasture management

Inspired by visits to other pasture-based farming systems and advice from industry mentors before taking on Essebeare Farm, Olly implemented an all-grass system from the beginning. In 2016 Olly worked with James Daniel from Precision Grazing to help develop and manage the grazing system. There was a lot of work involved to put suitable fencing and water infrastructure in place for the rotational grazing system. Initially he used a plate meter and Agrinet for 3 years to help make grazing management decisions, but during this time Olly learnt a lot about looking at pasture and its stage of growth. Now he knows his farm and has the infrastructure established, he moves animals and makes decisions by eye. He has the confidence to do this now which he didn’t in the beginning. Grazing management now aims to increase grass production and soil resilience to cope with the dry (cold and hot) and wet spells, he uses deep rooting plants where possible to help with this. 

The 229-acre farm is made up of around 69 acres of restored hay meadows, 17 acres of woodland, 59 acres of permanent pasture and the remainder being temporary leys. Olly has had to invest a lot of time and money into improving the grassland which had previously been poorly managed. Liming and fencing have been two of the major investments. 

The restored meadows are managed under the GS6 option. They have had green hay applied to increase diversity. They must be shut from 1st March and have a late hay cut after July 15th, although  in some cases they are shut up at Christmas and left until the following October and grazed with cattle or sheep, this, he believes, is the key to success and diversity – late season grazing to reset before Christmas and then allow land to be rested for 150 days plus. It’s a cyclical approach. There is lots of wildlife on the farm to suggest the ecosystem is providing a good habitat for them including beavers and dormice. Restoration of hay meadows has resulted in an increase in species diversity from a baseline of 5 species /sq. m to more than 15.

The 60 acres of permanent pasture is rotationally grazed by sheep or cattle. He alternates each year to reduce worm burdens.

The temporary leys are in for 5 to 7 years and are rotationally grazed with sheep, these fields are situated on the higher, more fertile plateau fields on the farm which have been limed and received FYM from the cattle. He uses an OP4 – mob grazing mix which consists of species such as Cocksfoot, Meadow Fescue, Timothy, PRG, Red Clovers, White Clovers, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Chicory, Yarrow, Plantain, Burnet. Olly is paid a herbal ley supplement and he says it’s good that the government is bringing SFI in line so you can get paid for managing grassland in this way.

He reseeds between 5 and 10 acres per year. Historically he has been ploughing but is moving towards direct seed drilling or overseeding now, to reduce tractor usage and disturbing the soil. The old leys are cultivated in August and go into a diverse forage cover crop containing at least 12 species. The following Spring, an arable silage crop of peas and barley is established with a herbal ley mix broadcast on top. The intention behind this has been to beat the dry starts to the year by having the arable crop as a nurse crop and trapping moisture for the establishing ley. After 9 weeks the arable crop is cut and baled, leaving the new herbal ley for the weaned lambs and providing silage for the young beef cattle over winter.

Where possible Olly likes to use the animals to do the job of machines on the farm for example grazing a field bare before reseeding or trampling seed in after broadcasting.

There has been an issue with a lot of docks coming through in the field that has not been ploughed this time. The permanent pastures do not have the same issue with weeds as the temporary leys but he feels these herbal leys and brassica mixes are needed for the sheep system to work well for worm reductions and growth of lambs etc. Olly feels the sheep need a fresh bite ahead of them all the time. Cattle are housed in December to reduce stress on the land.

Grazing management

The fields are split with lateral fences and then he uses a temporary kiwi kit to subdivide fields, which makes paddock set up easy and quick. Olly says it takes him about 20 mins to set up new paddocks.

During peak times of grass growth, the sheep are moved every 1-3 days. From mid-April to December, he is rationing grazing, when grass growth slows the moves slow too. There is no shortage of forage on the farm as he is understocked. The sheep are grazed in three different groups on the farm - ewes, ewe lambs and ram lambs.

Olly makes hay when the weather allows, otherwise it is wrapped, “this is a challenge of our changing climate.” Conserved forage is analysed to keep an eye on quality. 


The flock lamb outdoors from April 1st onwards. Olly uses teaser rams and high ram power at tupping (1:20) and finds that 90% of lambs arrive within the first 19 days of lambing. Scanning percentage ranges between 148-178%. 

Whilst the ewes are lambing in paddocks Olly uses a technique called drift lambing where ewes with young lambs are left behind when the group is moved, this makes it easier to tag the young lambs before they move on to be mobbed up. Once lambs are tagged, the couples are mobbed up and moved on. Sheep are in mobs of 60 for the lambing period then all mobbed up together after lambing.

It is a challenge to keep on top of performance recording outside, so they prioritise recording multiple births (which is a big selection trait) and the lambs from the best ewes. He is also selecting for fertility by capturing the records of lambs born in the first 19 days of lambing to select from.

They are out and about most of the time with the lambing ewes. They have 20 hospital pens in the shed if needed, anything that comes in is marked down unless it really isn’t her fault. Temperament is often the issue – young mothers leaving their lambs which is another big selection factor for the breeding flock. They usually have 1 or 2 vet students who come to help over the busiest two-week lambing period. The students often go away having really enjoyed being outdoors rather than lambing in a shed. 

The aim at lambing is minimal intervention, especially with the wool shedders as they are very flighty. Outdoor lambing reduces labour requirements and other inputs, and Olly feels the high costs of indoor lambing outweigh any benefits gained.

Ewe nutrition

BCS is very important to Olly’s system, especially late in the year, “it gives you time to make decisions about management.” Olly was once told that BCS will be an indicator of ewe performance for the next 3-4 years. 

Grass nutrition is rising in late March which helps the ewes – one of the main challenges at lambing is wet weather which can have a big impact on ewe and lamb performance, but it's hard to plan to avoid this. He has been considering pushing lambing back to the 2nd week of April, but there is no guarantee this will ensure dry weather.

The singles are kept on thin air – Olly says he’s quite hard on them. Twins and thin ewes are on unrestricted forage in a good field of grass for the 20 days over lambing. The triplets may come indoors and be fed better quality red clover silage leading up to lambing if required. 

Ewes are blood tested and are all on a cobalt, selenium, iodine bolus given at weaning and when they get Heptavac around 4-6 weeks before lambing. 

Youngstock nutrition

Once weaned, the lambs are grazed on the new herbal ley reseeds. They also cell graze the best grass fields. The male lambs are not castrated so they are kept in a separate group after weaning. This group is on the herbal leys until around November when he hopes most will have finished.  Butchers tend not to want entire ram lambs after Christmas due to the perception of ram taint and meat being tougher due to testosterone levels. Ewe lambs are also grazed on the herbal leys, but they have the older swards that have a bit less legume and chicory. 

All lambs are given the same bolus as the ewes pre weaning. 

Wet weather can severely impact lambs, they use 40% more energy when wet than dry and this can be a problem in the Devon climate. Olly believes that sunshine is important to make the protein in grass more available and this, coupled with suppressed worm burdens, is why you get good growth rates in dry summers.

Olly is aiming to sell lambs at 40 -42kg liveweight with a good finish. The Lleyns can be a bit leaner, and he has used texel tups in the past to help with this. This year he only used Lleyn and Exlana rams, so he had more ewe lambs to retain for breeding – he’s planning to keep about 70 replacements this year and this is standard practice for him once every 5 years; to put a higher number of replacements into the flock periodically.

Olly has been involved with a Visual Imaging Analysis pilot trial with the Texel breed society and ABP where lambs from 5 farms in the UK have been assessed. Olly’s lambs were the only organic, 100% pasture fed lambs in the trial. The trial showed that his ewes were the most efficient based on lamb weaning weights and therefore had the best feed conversion efficiency scores!

Parasite management

Olly says he is relying more and more on the EID weigh data (DLWG ) to inform worming decisions for lambs. It’s the cornerstone of decision making as there is no blanket treatment of animals at all now. If average DLWG is below 170kg/day then lambs are wormed. He feels the pooled FEC sampling done through the vet is expensive and not very practical for making worming decisions for the flock, however he is going to look at white and yellow drench wormer resistance next year via the new Animal Health and Welfare Pathway with his vet. 

Sometimes the younger ewes may need worming, this is decided on their BCS at weaning and 4 weeks pre tupping. The older ewes are not wormed. He doesn’t get much issue with Fluke on the farm.

There is no blanket use of external parasite chemicals such as Clik, partly because, due to being organic, the withdrawal period is trebled. Olly observes the sheep closely on a day-to-day basis to catch anything affected, he lost one sheep this year and treated a handful of others. Any affected animals will be treated with a product such as Molecto.

The lambs are sheared after weaning which helps reduce the risk of flystrike and helps the lambs grow on better. Ewes are crutched and bellied fully when given Heptavac at 4-6 weeks pre-lambing. This helps with cleanliness which reduces flies and improves observation at lambing, they often use binoculars at lambing to observe ewes from a good distance, especially with the Exlanas, which are very flighty.

Flock monitoring and breeding selection

Initially, in 2015, Olly stocked the farm with around 500 ewe lambs, from a known upland flock (880m above sea level) and he feels the genetics of the progressive upland flocks are well suited to Devon, despite the climate being wetter. However, numbers have been reduced significantly to 170 ewes in the flock now. The farm and sheep flock were under considerable pressure with such high numbers so Olly took the decision to reduce flock size and focus on getting the genetics right to suit the farm. 

When Olly decided to reduce his flock size, he was able to implement a cull policy that has led to a flock with genetics that he is comfortable with. For example, 90 sheep were culled out due to foot issues; if they received 2 or more antibiotic treatments they were tagged and removed from the flock and he now concentrates on prompt treatment and trying to keep the farm as clean as possible, by minimising the risk of introducing foot issues with new sheep etc.

He started performance recording in 2017, tagging lambs at birth and capturing weights. The EID recording kit, weigh crate and Pratley handling system which he got using a leader grant have become very important management tools on the farm. A key selection trait for getting the best genetic lines that were working well on his farm was 8-week lamb weights which showed which ewes demonstrated good maternal performance. Now the flock is at a stable size, Olly focuses selection of ewes on good maternal performance, efficiency and ewes that are low input. This reduces the labour requirement and makes the flock more resilient. 

Ewes are weighed 3 – 4 times per year; the most important weight for ewes is the gain between weaning and the pre mating check – he has seen ewes gain 18.5kgs in this period with the average being 8 -10 kgs, if there is no weight gain in this period there is a usually a reason for this that means the ewes are not mated and could be sold as mutton or culled out of the flock. It could be a dental problem, worms or other issues. Olly is careful to check along the jawline for lumps as well as looking at teeth in the mouth when doing teeth and udder checks. BCS is recorded and compared to the ewe’s previous records – this links back to how the ewe will perform for next three breeding seasons so it’s an important measure for Olly’s system.

He also keeps an eye on repeat single bearing ewes, if they also produce lambs with slower growth rates they are culled out of the flock as he is aiming for twin bearing ewes with good growth rates. Ewes are also culled if they are too flighty and anxious, have poor maternal instinct or a small pelvis which leads to them requiring assistance at lambing.

Lambs are weighed 6 times – monthly currently, but he may increase the frequency as he noticed a flatlining in growth in the middle of summer this year and more frequent weighing would have picked this up sooner so he could take action.

Soil testing -  Biological analysis funded by the Devon Wildlife Trust has shown improved organic carbon stocks and an increased Solvita Co2-Burst score following all the management changes on farm. The test is a measure of carbon dioxide respiration that provides insight into the microbial activity within soils. Results have been interesting showing that some fields performed better than others and this can be linked back to previous and current management – for example, older pastures are ‘less alive’ which may be due to less organic matter than herbal leys.

Selling produce

Most lamb and mutton is sold to butchers. Selling to butchers is about good communication and trying to get them to plan ahead. Olly contacts them several weeks in advance to try and get bookings confirmed with plenty of notice. He likes this system as they pay for the whole carcass and he feels it’s a more honest system than selling at market or to a processer like ABP, both of which are very impersonal. “It’s more 1-2-1 with butchers and the animal welfare is better.” Butchers also like mutton which is an advantage for Olly. There is a 4hr round trip to Chard abattoir when selling to butchers, the abattoir then delivers to the butcher.

Olly is also in the process of setting up a direct selling enterprise and applying for funding from the levelling up fund to set up a butchery on farm which is costing £32k -  £16k for fridge trailer, vac pack machine, mincer, tables etc and £16k for insulated space and infrastructure for butchery. Olly feels this funding is another example of government supporting innovation and how farmers can still get their BPS money, but its available in different ways now.

He is also starting to sell sheepskins and yarn/wool products from the sheep, but this enterprise is in its infancy. 

Lambswool goes to the Naturalmat Company in Topsham that makes mattresses with organic wool from farms in the Southwest. They pay £1.50/kg collected. This is part of the reason that Olly is moving away from the wool shedding ewes back to Lleyn ewes.


AHDB figures will provide data for here. Should show that lowering stock numbers and inputs can still lead to same or increased income especially when direct selling involved too.

Despite reducing the number of lambs to sell per year the changes to the farming system have resulted in increased turnover through better lamb prices and reduced inputs such as labour and chemical intervention (he used to Clik every lamb and Crovect every ewe and his antibiotic use was much higher).

Biodiversity on the farm

Sheep are a strategic tool in the management of species rich grasslands, such as wildflower meadows, a role that is often played down by conservationists. They help reset pasture and open up the base of the sward, allowing light in, they also tread seeds into the soil. Sheep can perform the same objective as cows but it’s down to the shepherd to put the infrastructure and management in place to succeed i.e., not set stocking or overgrazing. 

Benefits and challenges of the sheep system

Benefits – Olly gets an enormous sense of satisfaction from shepherding, seeing the flock thriving and knowing the system is working.

Olly’s farm is a farm of two halves – Wildflower meadows and mature pastures and the more productive herbal ley platform – the sheep and cattle require different management, for example, the sheep require a lot of fresh herbage with good nutritional value to thrive which is where Olly feels the herbal ley platform is invaluable. Grazing by cattle or sheep makes the grasslands more productive, as long as it's managed correctly and this results in more photosynthesis and carbon sequestration.

Challenges – extreme weather events which are becoming more common and unpredictable lead to metabolic stress in the sheep. These have an impact on management decisions such as whether to house during storms. Being wet for long periods is not good for the sheep.  Olly is planting more hedges and incorporating avenues of goat willow, apple trees and hazel trees within pastures for shade, shelter and browse, which he hopes will improve conditions for sheep and increase resilience on farm. Essebeare Farm has clay-based soils which can be liable to poaching and compaction, but they do recover under the right management.

Suggestions for anyone thinking about a pasture-based system

Olly says that genetics are key for a successful pasture-based system, you need to have the right genetics for your system. He suggests finding people you admire and visiting their farms and asking lots of questions! It’s taken Olly 10 years to get his flock genetics to where he is comfortable, he has bought in genetics from progressive breeders that he either worked with or visited and mixed them to get to where he is today. 

Olly says don’t be precious about a sheep looking a particular way. Hybrid vigour is very important. Find sheep that fit your own farm. He also acknowledges that you don’t have to buy in all new genetics, there is potential and variation within every flock – “choose the best 20 or so ewes in your flock and breed replacements from them.”