Adam Henson’s farm talk – Where our food comes from part eight: lamb

The delicate flavour of spring lamb is one of the tastes of the season. But, as Adam Henson reveals, ‘spring’ lamb is born in December and kept indoors.

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What could be more appetising than a simple roast leg of spring lamb, garnished with rosemary and accompanied by carrots, savoy cabbage and crispy roast potatoes? Not forgetting the mint sauce, of course.

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Spring lamb, or what some people call ‘new season’ lamb, has a great reputation for being sweet, tender and succulent. So it’s a popular choice for Sunday roasts, curries and even pies and stews at this time of year. Traditionally, lamb has been a dish associated with religious and seasonal feasts, mostly because it symbolises new birth as well as the passing of the dark winter months into longer, lighter days. All of which explains why it’s still so popular at Easter and through the first half of the year.
But all is not what it at first appears, because when it comes to lamb, the term ‘spring’ doesn’t refer to the time of year when the animal is born. That’s because spring lamb is actually winter lamb.

The usual time for ewes to give birth is in March and April, and there’s an old country saying that states that “if you take the ewe to the ram on Bonfire Night, they’ll give birth with a bang on April Fool’s Day”. But as lamb for the table needs to be around four months old and weigh at least 36kg (80lb) before it’s able to be sold to the butcher, then it’s obvious that the meat eaten in spring has to be older.

Year-round demand

If all the lamb on sale in shops and supermarkets was born in March and April, it would mean empty shelves in springtime, followed by a glut in the trade between August and October. That’s unthinkable in today’s global marketplace and consumer-driven society, because there’s a demand from the shopper and the retailers to spread availability throughout the year. Indeed, when you walk around some supermarkets, you could be forgiven for thinking that we live in a world where nothing is out of season.

So one way of giving everyone what they want is to start lambing in December. Of course, in our unpredictable climate, that isn’t without its problems. No right-thinking farmer would turn newborn lambs out on to snow-covered fields. So, more often than not, lambs for spring have to be born and reared indoors. As there’s very little grass around in the depths of winter, the lambs need extra food, such as concentrates and silage, to give them the nutrients they need.

The wellbeing of the animals is paramount, but housing them and keeping them fed properly adds to the cost of production for the farmer.

Perfect conditions

The conditions for rearing early lambs don’t suit every sheep farmer. As regular Countryfile viewers will know, my farm in the Cotswolds is on high, open land that’s exposed to the elements. We have long winters and late springs. So we lamb from the middle of March to the end of April to make the most of the flush of grass that we get as conditions warm up. Producing spring lambs, born in December, simply isn’t suitable for me.

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Another way to satisfy consumer demand is to import meat from countries such as Australia and New Zealand, where the Southern Hemisphere seasons are the reverse of ours. For the supermarkets and the customers they serve, it makes perfect sense.
So if your meat is labelled ‘spring lamb’, don’t assume that it’s British. New Zealand lamb, in particular, has a great reputation and tastes delicious, but if you’re concerned about food miles or you’re keen to support UK farmers, then check the packaging or talk to your butcher.