There You Grow

Last Updated: 06 Oct 2014
Kim Cousins

Happiness is a free-range flock... it’s a philosophy that’s stood farmers Sara and Keith Wilson in good stead.

Happiness is a free-range flock... it's a philosophy that's stood farmers Sara and Keith Wilson in good stead, allowing them to produce Dorper lamb of the highest quality.

For Sara and Keith Wilson, delivering the perfect lamb to consumers is all about education. "We need more people to ask questions about where their food is coming from and how it fits in the market chain," says Sara, whose journey from stud breeder to food producer started with the realisation that many people were out of touch with the food they ate. "That way, we can have a direct conversation between farmers and consumers.

"We're trying to engage people in nose-to-tail eating. A sheep is more than a set of French cutlets. The feedback we've been getting is that the meat is juicer, with more substance, and a better cut shape."

The results tell the story: at the recent WA's Signature Dish competition, the key ingredient in the winning entry was their Dorper lamb.

So what's the secret to setting their meat apart from similar products on the market? That relaxed sheep are happy sheep. "And happy sheep equals happy meat," says Sara.

Fourth-generation sheep farmers out of Kulin, Sara and Keith allow their 8000 Dorper sheep to roam freely on the 6000ha Jilakin Downs, located three hours' drive southeast of Perth. They are one of just eight Dorper breeders currently registered in Western Australia, although the breed is gaining popularity due to its ability to adapt to our state's varying climates and grazing conditions. But it was the easygoing temperament of the animals and the superior taste they produce that attracted the Wilsons to this breed in particular. "Dorpers are to lamb what Angus and Wagyu are to beef," says Sara, who sells their lamb under the brand name Gimlet Grove.

Gimlet Grove's produce is personally delivered to Perth households and restaurants, such as Fremantle's Bread in Common. Sara also sells the meat at the Leederville Farmers Market every fortnight, along with free-range eggs laid by her 250 grass-fed chooks.

Sara and Keith use holistic management techniques, fitting in the raising of the livestock with the surrounding environment, while at the same time reducing chemical inputs. "It's simple," Sara says. "The sheep keep the weeds down; instead of targeting weeds with chemical herbicide we're targeting them with our sheep. We let the sheep be sheep and select the ones that thrive in their natural environment."

The animals are allowed to roam, venturing up to a kilometre away and coming back at sunset for feeding. And since they feed on what grows naturally, their diet is varied – at the moment, saltbush and moths are on the menu. "We had rain and there were a lot of moths – it was like we'd turned up with caviar at a cocktail party," Sara says.

Dorpers don't need shearing or mulesing, making them low-maintenance in that they are less prone to issues such as lice and flystrike. The breed also lambs all year round, as opposed to just once a year, allowing a continuous supply of animals.

That part of the process, says Sara, takes care of itself. "We select rams that are randy and ewes that like to chase them," she laughs.

After all, it's just another way in which the Wilsons encourage their livestock to do what comes naturally.

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