For many hundreds of years, mutton was the main form of sheep meat eaten in the United Kingdom. Yet over the past 40 years, it has virtually disappeared from our kitchens - and we are in real danger of losing one of our iconic foods.

Mutton production has been entwined with the British landscape, our history, our wealth and our wellbeing since prehistoric times. The story of sheep and mutton is very much part of the story of the United Kingdom.

Mutton was the mainstay of British cuisine right up until the second world war when farmers were called up for duty and replaced in the field by less-skilled workers. It’s no surprise that badly reared native mutton treated brutishly in austere vats of boiling water, meant an entire generation had their palates tainted.

Postwar farming practices spawned our modern love affair with lamb while mutton, tragically, vanished from the nation's tables.

After the war came another food revolution. Vast imports hit our shelves in order to feed a baby boom nation. One of those products was New Zealand lamb. British homes were encouraged to ditch the traditional local meat of choice in favour of “The Meat of Sunshine” with persuasive ads such as “The Housewife looks to New Zealand Lamb, confident in the knowledge that while production increases, the traditional high quality of lamb will be rigidly maintained”.

The increase in cheaper imports put pressure on native farmers to speed up production of lamb, killing it younger and younger, to try and reduce their costs as well as keep up with the new trend for juvenile milky meat.

By this time it had already been ingrained in the retail psyche, as well as the housewives mantra, that consistency is key - something that our commonwealth cousins did exceptionally well.

Today the trend still remains with most modern lambs slaughtered very rarely beyond six months, yet without any doubt, the best sheep meat comes from pasture-fed animals who have lived a proper life.

Meat from older sheep has undeservedly had a bad press for decades. Two-year-old-plus sheep manage to keep their condition thanks to their hardiness and symbiotic relationship with the local landscape. There's a misconception that mutton are ‘old scraggy old ewes’. Actually a lot of care goes into nurturing a well-finished animal.

Cull Yaw mutton sheep running down the road

Pipers Farm Cull Yaw Mutton Sheep

"Cull Yaw”  is a term frequently employed in Cornwall to describe a cull ewe, which is a sheep no longer suitable for breeding. Sheep farmer, Matt Chattfield, feeds his sheep with nutrient-rich herbal leys and ancient woodland, employing a method known as silvopasture. 

This approach cultivates a harmonious partnership between wooded areas and livestock, in this case sheep. His cull yaw mutton sheep graze on the organic materials found on the woodland floor, such as grasses, trees, and shrubs.

The sheep that Matt buys are typically aged between 7 and 9 years. He enhances their flavour by adding a delicious layer of fat with his unique sivopasture method. 

Cull Yaw mutton sheep stood by a tree

The majority of mutton in the country is typically sourced from sheep aged between 3 and 5 years. Nevertheless, in Matt's flock, which consists of native breed Cull Yaw North of England Mules and Romney mutton sheep, the animals are notably older, usually aged seven years and older.

At around 5-7 years old the ewes will begin to tire. Often they are unable to produce another crop due to something called ‘black bag’ an infection in the udder, not dissimilar to mastitis in a cow. If they are unable to sufficiently suckle their young, it is time for them to be retired.

Sometimes though it’s their teeth that can give out first, losing one or two and forming what’s known as a ‘broken mouth’, you’ll see these ewe’s move down to the lowland pastures which provides less rugged fodder than the top of the moor, grazing softer more manageable grasses - a little like your Grandmother favouring mash potato over a crispy roasted spud. If they don’t get enough nourishment because their teeth have failed it is time for them to be culled.

This is when Matt steps in, and bring them to the beautiful landscape of the Devon and Cornish boarder, where he'll feed them on his nutrient rich herbal leys and ancient woodland.  

A flock of mutton sheep in the woods

Our Cull Yaw mutton play an important role in nature and the surrounding landscape. Since Matt has been running his sheep in his ancient woodland the number of plant species sustained by the seed bank has surged from six or seven to well over 120. 

 "If you want world class meat, you need an animal that has walked around for a large part of its life, this builds a flavour that you cannot achieve in a younger animal." Matt Chatfield, Cull Yaw Mutton Farmer. 

These sheep have been roaming for years, up and down hills and across moorland, in that time they will have built up a fantastically strong carcass, with thick, strong ligaments, rich collagen and healthy ‘proper’ bone marrow.

Like a fine bottle of wine, our mutton sheep simply get better with age. Time is the magic ingredient to produce a complexity of flavour that is simply not present in a younger animal.

Mutton to young/Spring lamb (or New Zealand lamb) is simply the equivalent of veal to our Red Ruby Beef. The key, of course, for mutton to reach its full potential is it that requires proper hanging time. Time for the tendons to relax through maturation, whilst the good bacteria get to work intensifying the flavour. Time is always the magic ingredient when it comes to mutton.

There is another clear satisfaction beyond the question of taste; being able to take an animal to its full potential in life feels like a distinctive gain in terms of welfare. Knowing that what is on our plates has truly been part of nature, nurturing the landscape in some of the most beautiful locations. 

Forgotten no longer, it is our mission to put Mutton back on your table.

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