JOINT PARTNERSHIP: Wayne and Karen Hutchinson with  business partner Tim Madgwick (centre)
JOINT PARTNERSHIP: Wayne and Karen Hutchinson with business partner Tim Madgwick (centre)

ONE of the highest accolades in the global food and drink sector has been clinched by Dales Lamb – less than two years since the farm-to-fork business was first established.

Run by Gainford and Hawes sheep farmers Tim Madgwick and Wayne Hutchinson, Dales Lamb snapped up a top-rated three stars for its Swaledale Mutton Leg in the 2019 Great Taste Awards, organised by The Guild of Fine Food. The awards are described as the world’s most coveted food and drink accolade.

From a record 12,772 entries from over 100 different countries this year, only 208, less than three per cent, of products achieved a highly coveted three stars.

Judges singled out Dales Lamb’s Swaledale Mutton Leg as “rich, moist and tender, sweet, perfumed and rounded, with a classic depth of flavour that lingers on the palate”.

Both men breed sheep to supply to Dales Lamb. While their flocks are diverse they have one thing in common - all are dales-reared and pasture-fed, providing quality cuts of lamb, hogget and mutton, with some lamb-based speciality sausages thrown in for good measure.

Their direct meat sales business also has a wholesale arm, with sheep taken every couple of weeks to ensure continuity of supply.

While both principals are now dyed-in-the-wool sheep aficionados, Mr Madgwick, an old boy of Westminster College, in London, has no farming background whatsoever – far from it - only kindling an interest in sheep in later life, though he reckons agriculture must have been in his genes because his great uncle had a farm.

His early working life was spent in London in the music business as an ‘A&R’ - artists and repertoire - man, providing a link between the artist and the recording company or publisher, later becoming an artist manager himself.

He farms about 40 acres of rented land in and around Gainford, running a mixed breed flock comprising 60 per cent Herdwick and 40 per cent North of England Mule and Texel. The lambing percentage is 177 per cent. He will be putting approximately 50 ewes and gimmers to the tup this November for late April lambing.

Unlike his business partner, farming is well entrenched in Mr Hutchinson’s blood and has been since his school days. His parents run an all-Swaledale sheep flock on a hill farm near Ravenstonedale in Cumbria.

With his wife, Karen, Mr Hutchinson runs around 30 acres of their own land near Hawes, plus a couple of allotments - one above Askrigg, the other on Stainmore. They lamb about 55 Swaledale ewes, which are run pure, along with 12 to 15 Texels, which also are run pure. Their lambing rate is around 175%.

He explained: “We try to put as many as possible of our Swale wethers through Dales Lamb and feel that the grass-based diet helps the taste, especially from the top ground, which enhances the flavour.

“We keep a few wethers for hogget/mutton and gelt ewes, less good ones, are culled for mutton. As we just have a few ewes we can manage the system well and flock health is a priority. Happy sheep taste better.”

Mr Madgwick also keeps and buys in Herdwick wether lambs to see through to mutton. His lambs tend to go for meat first and then Mr Hutchinson's Swaledale lambs cover the late season, with Dales Meat’s requirements supplemented from his parents’ Swaledale flock as and when required.

He also sells Swaledale rams at association sales, while extra females are sold for breeding. He and his wife like to show sheep, too, and they have been doing well at shows from the Royal Highland to Muker

Mr Madgwick initially supplied friends and family with home-produced lamb, marketing it under the ‘Tees View’ label, but the two men’s joint passion for livestock production led to the launch of Dales Lamb.

The partnership is paying dividends, with demand on the up locally, regionally and nationally. On average, Dales Lamb now sells around six carcases per month, varying from lamb, hogget or mutton, depending on availability.

This represents an increase of 50 oer cent on last year’s sales.

Customers include the general public and, increasingly, the hospitality sector, with regular orders now received from London and as far south as Kent.

Packaging the meat in environmentally-friendly wool insulation material and sending it out by courier illustrates Dales Meat’s long-term commitment to ‘going and staying green’ wherever possible, a philosophy that’s also integral to their farming interests.

Both men staunchly believe that responsible sheep farming makes a major contribution to protecting England’s green and pleasant land, as well as playing a key role in keeping down weeds. Sheep feed on permanent grass leys, which again reduces the carbon footprint.

“We could actually say that we are virtually carbon neutral,” said Mr Hutchinson.

Keeping food miles to a minimum is also a crucial consideration, with sheep from both flocks slaughtered and processed by either Simpsons, of Cockfield, or MacIntyre Meats. The mutton is hung for ten days on average, though long experience by the abattoirs sets hanging times on individual carcase assessment.

The partners say they have not been at all surprised by the resurgence of consumer interest in mutton of late.

Mr Madgwick explained: “It was very popular many years ago, then dropped out of fashion because it had a reputation for being fatty, which is true to some extent, though it very much depends on the breed.

“However, mutton has enjoyed a revival in recent years and we have found that both Herdwicks and Swaledales produce the best mutton. The meat has a wonderful texture and taste and is best cooked slowly over several hours. The mince is also good – for example, in shepherd’s pies.

“The eating public have certainly developed a taste for it, while some of the country’s top chefs now have dishes using our mutton on their menus.”

The annual Great Taste showcase, widely acknowledged as the most respected food accreditation scheme for artisan and speciality food producers, is judged by over 500 of the most demanding palates -food critics, chefs, cooks, restaurateurs, buyers, retailers and producers, as well as food writers and journalists. They’re looking for great texture and appearance, but value taste above all else.

The partners said: “As well as a badge of honour, the unmistakeable black and gold Great Taste label is a signpost to a wonderful tasting product, one people from all walks of life can trust when buying from a local, quality enterprise.

“Great Taste Awards are regarded as the ‘Oscars’ of the food world, the epicurean equivalent of the Booker prize. We are absolutely over the moon to gain this highly coveted stamp of excellence.”

Dales Lamb, which is marketed all year round, does not have a website, but instead uses social media – both Facebook and Twitter pages - to promote and market the business, and take orders for produce.