Pasture for Life celebrated its 10th year this month. Over those 10 years, the certification scheme has greatly advanced understanding of the benefits of pasture fed meat, yet as Easter approaches I am gnashing my teeth whilst reading all the articles in the press that recommend “Spring Lamb” as the centrepiece for your Easter celebrations. Open your eyes and look around – or just look at the pictures on social media – in Britain lambs are just being born in the spring, they are not ready to eat!
A very defined breeding cycle exists for lamb, only the Dorset Horn (and its polled variant) can breed all year round. The various breeds have developed to reflect their local climatic conditions, with the first lambs being born early in the year in warmer parts of the south, gradually being followed by the Scottish Lowlands, the Welsh hills and finally the Highlands. Each of these areas produces lamb with its own distinctive flavour, due in part to the breed and partly to their forage.
Even lamb which is not reared to Pasture for Life standards remains relatively immune to intensive farming methods and is usually reared outdoors, after all grass is cheaper than buying sheep nuts, although it has become common practice to finish them on cereals. This has a detrimental effect on its Omega 3 content as well fuelling the criticism that in place of animals we could grow crops for human consumption. This criticism of course only bears weight if the land is suitable for growing crops which most upland areas are not.
So, what would be involved in producing a lamb that was ready to eat at Easter? Well in Britain that would, as I have already mentioned, only be possible with the Dorset breed. It would be born in the Autumn and would then spend most of its life indoors. Initially it would drink its mother’s milk, and there is a market abroad for very young, milk fed lambs. However, by introducing silage, cereals and protein (often soya) it might reach what is considered a marketable weight at around 5 months. Waitrose does sell a limited amount of this Dorset breed lamb, although there was none available when I searched the internet this week. What their website does say is “because English and Welsh lamb is seasonal, we source high quality [Spring Lamb] from trusted farmers in New Zealand until June when British Lamb comes into it’s prime”. So, if you are buying Spring Lamb for Easter, if fresh it will probably have been imported from New Zealand, although it might be possible to buy British frozen. The option I prefer if I want to serve sheep meat at this time of year is to serve Hogget, which is from a lamb that is slaughtered over a year old. Pasture for Life certified lamb spends approximately 50% more time grazing (52 weeks on average) than those finished on cereals. They enjoy a longer and more natural life that enables me to enjoy watching the newly born lambs frolicking in the fields in Spring.
See also The Absolute Importance of Upland Mutton for more information about the characteristics of mutton from different locations and how to cook and serve it.