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The only way is ethics: going beyond PGI

Categories: Behind the stalls

How Rhug Estate’s elevated quality and welfare standards go beyond the PGI protection of Welsh lamb

There is something deeply reassuring about Welsh lamb. Like Kentish strawberries, Somerset cider, Worcester sauce and Cornish ice cream, the sight of Welsh lamb on the menu can’t help but reassure you that, whatever else might happen that evening, you will at the very least be well fed.

With its soft hills, tangled copse, verdant pastures and months and months (and months) of rain, the country couldn’t be better suited to sheep farming. Indeed, as of last year, Welsh lamb was afforded PGI status—that is, Protected Geographical Indication, an EU certification scheme that guarantees authenticity and protects regional traditions. In the case of Welsh lamb, it demands lambs be born and reared in Wales; be allowed to roam freely across the Welsh habitat; and that the meat be prepared only in approved abattoirs. It’s a stamp of quality and ethicality. Still, not all Welsh lamb is born equal—and even if it is born equal, it is not all reared equally.

Rhug Estate’s Welsh lamb is a step above. The farm is organic, and as such they tend to their land using traditional practices: crop rotation, careful management of livestock, and regulating weeds and diseases through the judicious planting of herbs. “Things like chicory, clover, plantain and sheep’s parsley give the animal variety,” says farm manager Gareth Jones. The chicory acts as a natural wormer; the clover fixes nitrogen into the soil. This removes the need for artificial fertilisers and routine medicines, while at the same time, the variety of diet translates into a meat that is intensely flavoursome.

Farming tradition
That’s why Rhug is “the best there is,” says Gareth, without a trace of irony. “We are dealing with people in top end hotels and restaurants, and Borough Market customers. Quality has to be paramount—and they want to know all that has gone into that lamb to make it of such high quality.”

Being organic, Rhug’s livestock will never be densely stocked. They could not manage it. “We don’t use artificial nitrogen fertilisers—as I say, we rely on clover to boost grass growth—so we can’t stock sheep at the same levels as conventional farms.” This means the grazing area per animal is significantly higher than average. The PGI specifies that Welsh lamb are ‘grazed extensively’ on grassland—but this is the next level. With the exception of illness or frailty, Rhug’s sheep spend the whole year out to pasture. “Lamb is such a natural product—one which Wales is so well suited to produce, with so much snow and rain.”

Choosing Welsh lamb—and Rhug Welsh lamb in particular—means supporting a landscape and a farming tradition that goes back centuries of generations. It means supporting Wales, and—another thing the PGI stipulates—Welsh breeds of sheep. It means reducing the food miles of the meat you consume (Rhug lamb is finished on the farm and taken to the organic-approved abattoir just a mile away) and opting for a meat as rich in nutrients as it is flavour. Welsh lamb is for life, not just an Easter treat.