When I was told that, for this edition of TM2, we would be interviewing two 24-year-olds, I was a bit dubious.
While I have no doubt there are plenty of people in their 20s with interesting stories to tell, I still couldn’t help but wonder if, at that age, there would be enough to justify a 2000-word life interview. Lewis and Flora couldn’t have proved me more wrong. My doubts were dashed within a minute of beginning our conversation.
Between them, they are the driving force behind The Dartmoor Shepherd – one of the rising stars of the rural business world. In fact, the company is believed to be the only one in the world to commercially farm all three of Dartmoor’s native Longwool sheep breeds: Greyface Dartmoor, Whiteface Dartmoor and the Devon and Cornwall Longwool.
And all this is done without a single piece of land they can call their own, instead renting from several different landlords (so many in fact, that Lewis couldn’t put a number to it!)
This hasn’t stopped them bucking the new business trend, however, having made it to their third year and now owning over 700 sheep and receiving supportive noises from the likes of Prince Charles. All this started from Lewis’ childhood ambition to be a farmer, despite not coming from a farming background.
“I have always wanted to be a farmer. Every toddler goes through stages of what they want to be. First it is an astronaut and then it’s a farmer and then it’s a fireman. I never left the farmer stage.”
It wasn’t long before he started on that path. As a reward for doing well in his GCSE’s Lewis was given three Greyface Dartmoor ewes by his parents which he kept on a field he rented from a neighbour. This was just the beginning.
“I was told the only way to get into farming was to marry into it or go away and make money and come back to it. So that’s what I thought I would do.”
Not only was Dartmoor where the dream to be a farmer began, it is also where Lewis and Flora first met at the age of 16, The Birdcage in Chagford playing host to a relationship that was soon to blossom.
They went their own ways briefly – Lewis pursued his dream by studying and attaining a degree at The Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester whilst building up his flock of rare breed Dartmoor sheep back home in Devon, while Flora studied Creative Media Practice at Bath Spa University.
To sustain himself through his studies, Lewis would sell lambs to give him some extra cash. Admittedly, it is not normally the commodity you expect a student to be selling. At the end of his studies, Lewis was offered a job with William Chase, the former owner of Tyrrells Crisps and current owner of Chase Distillery, in Herefordshire.
After a few months back and forth between Devon and his new job, it was in a little coffee shop in Hereford that concept of The Dartmoor Shepherd came into being, deciding to move back to Devon to give it a go.
“We just picked up a couple of fields and then when more came up, we got those as well.”
Essentially starting from scratch, Lewis and Flora relied heavily on organisations for financial support. One of those was particularly helpful: “The Prince’s Countryside Fund and Land Rover Bursary give you free use of a Land Rover for a year – taxed and insured. Which helped us because we didn’t have to then buy a four-wheel drive car. Which was good because I came out of university with a Mini!”
In an anecdote that will ring true with many small business owners across Dartmoor, Lewis and Flora had multiple jobs in the first few months of their business in order to get The Dartmoor Shepherd up and running. Lewis even used his student account’s interest free overdraft to buy sheep. Something which every student has done at some point in their life, I’m sure!
It would be fair to say that our generation doesn’t have the most shining of reputations. You can hardly look at the national papers nowadays without anyone under the age of thirty being called workshy. I can assure you this isn’t the case with Lewis and Flora.
Not only is there the considerable amount of work that starting a new business entails, but this is compounded by the actual farming – a work-intensive job if there ever was one.
This is added to by not owning a single, all-encompassing farm of their own. Even tasks like shearing become a difficulty, with them having to put together a makeshift pen they keep in the back of his 4×4.
“We use the dog [Moss] to round up the sheep, but he’s only been with us for 12 months. Up until he was here, we just ran around a lot!” It didn’t take long for the hard work to pay off, catching the attention of a notable figure.
“Through the Prince’s Countryside Fund, Prince Charles found out what we were doing, and we were invited out to Clarence House. We displayed our sheepskins in the garden at a tea party!
‘He came over and spoke to us for about 10 minutes. He somehow found out we were talking to the Household Cavalry to supply them and he said ‘Brilliant! We need some proper sheepskins in there!’”
Having started in farming completely from scratch, I asked Lewis why, of all the different areas available to him, why did he choose to farm sheep? It is at this point I realised that this is more than just a business to him.
“I always loved the idea of being a shepherd. When I started it as a hobby, I wasn’t thinking of it as a business. I was also so passionate about keeping the Dartmoor breeds going. It just turns out that this passion is also a good business idea.”
Whilst there were a lot of sceptics when Lewis and Flora first chose to farm the rare breeds, stating that they were ‘rare for a reason’, it turns out to have been their most successful move. Taking inspiration from what became a sort of motto during our interview, Lewis said he turns all the “negatives into positives”. The breeds have become their Unique Selling Point, to use a business term.
The number of sheep the couple have amassed is now over 700, with the sheepskins being used to create a stunning range of interior items and accessories including rugs, doorstops, bean bags, footstools and handbags.
“One hide can be turned into multiple products, as we only have 700 sheep which is a limited supply and obviously the hide won’t grow back – you’ll be surprised how many people don’t realise that!
The couple also produce their own hogget which is sold to select, high-end local outlets and through a lamb box delivery service. Every day, though, there are new challenges that must be faced.
“On some land we have on Meldon hill just outside of Chagford, we average a dog attack every two months. We have lost over half a dozen sheep there now which is very demoralising considering we devote our lives to keeping our flocks safe, fit and healthy!”
Notwithstanding this, in just three years, The Dartmoor Shepherd team have gone from strength to strength, amassing achievements that most new businesses would envy. However, when I asked Lewis’ view on his proudest achievement, it all came back to the little boy that wanted to grow up to be a farmer:
“I have a personal achievement, which may sound pretty weird. I signed a form about two and a half years ago and it asked me to write down my occupation. I put farmer. I wanted to do that my whole life.”
However, the business doesn’t just stand because of invites to Clarence House or the sentimentality surrounding personal achievements. Commercially, things couldn’t be going much better with the renowned high street chain Toast just becoming their first big buyer.
Devon remains at the heart of their operation. The sheepskins are tanned at Devonia, Britain’s oldest established sheepskin tannery in Buckfastleigh, a carpenter in Ideford is used for some of the furniture material, with a little office in the old Lloyd’s Bank in Chagford being the heart of the operation. All this achieved by two people whose ages combined don’t yet make 50 years old.
“The ultimate goal is to own our own farm. That is the dream. We want to earn enough to buy a farm. Hopefully in the next 12 months we could take on a part-time shepherd. I’d love to take on someone local who would love to get into farming but can’t.
‘While it is difficult not having our own farm, it’s also our biggest strength. Everything – every single element – is analysed. We have a fresh view – new pair of eyes – on everything. We never say, ‘we do that because that’s what dad did’. Everything is new.”
In the next sentence, Lewis encapsulated the whole concept of The Dartmoor Shepherd better than a 2000-word interview ever could:
“We have entered farming in a new and modern way using the most ancient breed of sheep.”
At the heart of the business though, if you strip away everything else, is a team.
“We both do everything. We both do lambing, we both get hay in. We both have our areas as well. We both cross over all the time. If we had to define our areas, Flora is more marketing and products. I’m more about the land and Excel spreadsheets! It works surprisingly well.”
If at the end of reading this interview, you are still at loss as to why these two do it, why they have taken the risks they have, and invested all their time and money into The Dartmoor Shepherd, the final sentence of our interview should provide the answer:
“It’s bloody hard work. Especially not having a barn during lambing in bad weather. We had bad hail earlier this year and, in an effort to get the new born lambs into what little shelter we have, we were chasing the sheep around the field at 2am. But if you’ve helped deliver a lamb and it’s up and suckling, there is no greater feeling than that.”