Decades devoted to improving and promoting the Poll Dorset in the UK

Devon breeder David Rossiter has devoted decades to improving and promoting the Poll Dorset in the UK and, in return, the Huish flock has proved to be the backbone of the family farming business.

When David first began working at home, Burton Farm, Galmpton, near the coast at Kingsbridge, he was given the task of running the flock of purebred native breed longwool sheep which were crossed with the Suffolk.

Not satisfied with the performance, he bought a couple of pens of Dorset ewe lambs, thin king he would cross them and that commercial ewes were the way forward.

“We bred some pure and they produced three ram lambs which each sold for much more than the stock sire had cost and we found the pure bred Dorsets proved to be much more profitable,” said David.

Around that time David won a YFC travel scholarship to New Zealand and he spent eight months in the country and Australia working on farms where he quickly saw what made their Poll Dorsets producing a heavier carcase the number one terminal si re and this decided him on the future of the flock at Burton Farm.

Inspired by the late Poll Dorset breeder David Mathews from Bridgend, South Wales, who imported genetics from Australia and New Zealand to improve carcase quality and who gave great suppor t to next generation breeders, David quickly became an advocate of performance recording before Signet began but he has always maintained that the sheep has to function correctly.

The flock has won the Dorset association’s annual flock competition and cham pionships around the country.

In the following five decades of recording, David has seen big increases in lamb growth rates, carcass conformation and maternal performance – a situation he attributes directly to his breeding programme. Poll Dorset carcase weights have increased from 16-18kg to 20-22kg without excessive fat cover.

Now with one of his landlords set to adopt a natural regeneration policy on 300 tenanted acres of the 1,100 acres David and his son Rich farm, they will rely on the Dorsets and another new sheep enterprise to help weather the changes.

They farm predominantly grazing ground, 331 acres are owned and the remainder are rented from seven different landlords. They grow 250 acres of winter and spring barley, 20 acres of maize for the sheep and 20 acres of vetch and oats for feeding the rams which include Aberblack shearling rams bred on a contract with Innovis.

Until now the farm has run a flock of 520 Poll Dorsets lambing in September- October or in January, 200 Suffolk-Aberblack January lambing ewes and 400 Exlanas, a wool-shedding sheep breed composite which includes genetics from UK breeds and easy care sheep that David and nine other breeders have developed over the last 15 years. A further 600 ewe lambs are overwintered as replacements or for sale the following year.

The 300 acres of “store sheep land” as David describes it along the coastal strip designated for natural regeneration will not allow sheep to be grazed on it from April 1 to August 1.

“The sheep enterprises will have to be altered to cope with the reduced grazing and we will use the advantages of the Poll Dorset in the new management system. We have several different ideas. The farm now supports Rich and his wife Alice and we have four staff involved with the livestock and arable contracting business and we don’t want to make anyone redundant. “The Poll Dorset will come in to its own with the natural regeneration and it will give us the flexibility to lamb more of them, increasing the flock to 700 ewes in the next two years. We will sell some of the Exlana spring lambing ewes and we will replace them with Poll Dorsets to lamb in September-October.

“We have been putting the Poll Dorset on to the Exlana which we don’t want to breed pure. Now we are looking at the Australian White and establishing a flock with imported embryos. They are A-seasonal breeders which if we crossed it with the Poll Dorset we would get a wool shedder in three generations.

“Dorsets have been helping me to survive through all kinds of difficulties. In 2007 TB took the farm’s dairy herd and that was when the sheep enterprise really started to be put into gear.

Lambing in September is restricted to a tight three to four week period from September 10 to maintain the seasonal capability of the flock. Dorsets which have missed the autumn lambing go on to lamb in the three-week January lambing. The Exlanas have lambed over four to five weeks in March. Poll Dorset lambs are sold as new season lamb from 12 weeks old on contract to Waitrose, finished on crop or grass with creep. Rams are left entire with the selection for rams retained for breeding carried out at weaning when they can also ascertain which ewes have milked well.

The aim is for a 22kg carcase for the Waitrose branded scheme, set up thanks largely to the work of Wiltshire Dorset breeder Jim Dufosee. Rich and Alice are developing another enterprise - Huish Meat - in which they are marketing new season lamb from the heavier weight lamb carcases, selling chilled, boxed lamb all over the country from January to September. The venture started in 2020 and includes an on-farm cutting room.

The longer term plan is to market the niche Australian White lamb direct. The Australian White meat is likened to Wagyu beef with a different texture and fl avour to other lamb breeds and with a lower melting point.

Performance recording has provided a solid foundation for flock improvement and as an aid to marketing. Sales growth from the Huish flocks has also increased as a result.

“If you can improve volu me, you don’t have to cane customers on price if you do that they won’t come back. It has to be profitable for us but also for our buyers,” he says.

“Making breeding records available to our customers means they can find the right sheep for their system whether that’s selecting rams to accelerate lamb growth rates, improve carcass conformation or whatever trait they are interested in.”

Rams are selected initially on conformation by the Rossiters. This year’s consignment of seven rams entered in the May Fair at Exeter on May 2 and 3 at Kivells Exeter Livestock Centre were the first progeny from semen from two rams from the long established elite Gooramma Poll Dorset Stud in New South Wales, Australia which are among this season’s lamb crop.

Huish retains the highest average price for a pen of ram lambs sold at the May Fair.

While the May Fair is the flock’s foremost live marketing platform, the flock supports the Centurion Sale in April and sheep are sold off the farm at the end of the month. Huish prod uced the Centurion ram of the year in 2022 the breed’s Centurion Group is to promote performance recording.

Up to 60 rams are sold each year, including off the farm, with social media helping to promote the flock and its genetics. The Rossiters held the ir own on farm sale of 120 females last summer with a few more sold privately. The next on farm sale is scheduled for August 2026, taking into account the re structuring of the flocks.

Sheep are also sold for export from the Huish flocks which are scrapie monitored and this makes exporting an easier process. Recently, there have been enquiries for Dorsets males from Latvia and for Exlanas from Austria.

David says the Dorset breed continues to go from strength to strength. Two decades ago there were just o ver 200 breeders that has increased to more than 500 flocks all over the UK and Ireland.

“It’s the Dorset’s flexibility to lamb at any time to suit the breeder, either as a hobby flock to fit in with a career or to work around other activities on the fa rm such as crop work,” said David, a former long standing association council member, being both chairman and president over the last four decades.

He said the breed is easily managed and lambed because of the pelvic shape of the modern Poll Dorset. The sheep thrive on poorer ground and winter grazing without supplementary feed.

“The Dorset breed is not name driven, unlike other breeds where some flocks don’t stand a chance in achieving good prices. If you breed quality Poll Dorset stock and the sheep and the genetics are right, other breeders will look at them irrespective of prefix and they will give you a good return. It is also definitely a friendly society with plenty of help offered.”

Back to blog