Why you need to forget everything you thought you knew about eating spring lamb.
Sheep with their lambs in the summer at Fernhill Farm.
Easter Sunday lunch wouldn’t be complete without a leg of ‘new season’ spring lamb on the table, so we’re told. After all, there’s almost no better sign of a change in season than the sight of young lambs frolicking in lush pasture.
However, when you think about it, this makes little seasonal sense. Surely spring is when lambs are born, not eaten?
Why lamb at Easter?
History, custom and eating ‘celebration food’ at the end of fasting play a large part in the idea of eating lamb at Easter. In Medieval England the celebration fell at the end of a period of fasting known as ‘the hungry month’. People were able to get hold of lamb at this time, symbolising the lamb of God.
Where does spring lamb actually come from?
Up until around mid-summer, a lot of the lamb sold at supermarkets is imported from countries with longer lambing seasons, such as New Zealand. British ‘new season’ spring lamb sold at this time of year will have been born in January and reared indoors with their mothers’ milk during the cold months.
A few sheep breeds can lamb naturally in winter in Britain, yet most can’t. Some ewes will be given oestrogen to bring them into season earlier. Ewes lambing outside of spring won’t be fed on spring grass but on a supplementary feed such as ‘concentrate’ which is pelleted cereal. Known as “suck lamb” it is sweet but paler with a mild flavour. Some say it is a little porky compared with lamb born in the spring and raised on grass outdoors over the summer.
What happens to lambs born in spring in Britain?
British spring-born lamb comes into the height of its seasonal best in the summer, from around mid-June and into September. Much of the British lamb sold at this time of year will have been born in the spring of last year.
In the trade this isn’t technically called lamb but is known as hogget, which is a one-year-old animal in its second spring or summer. Having had a full year out on grass, it’s the best of both worlds in terms of being full of flavour yet terrifically tender.
We need to talk about ‘terroir’
Small-scale farmers proud of their provenance will tell you there is such a thing as lamb ‘terroir’. This is where consumers can expect differences in flavour and taste depending on the location of grazing and the breed of sheep.
Romney lamb raised on natural grasses and samphire of the salt marshes in Kent has a rich flavour and natural marbled fat. Head to the Shetlands and you’ll find a leaner meat from native breed lamb raised on heather-filled grassland.
Shepherd Andy Wear amongst the clover with his sheepdog on his farm, Fernhill Farm, in the Mendip Hills.
Farmers Jen and Andy Wear rear sheep at their record-setting Fernhill Farm in Mendip Hills. They describe their lamb as having a “distinctive flavour gained from a forage diet that is part of this green and pleasant land”, says Andy. “Sheep have the ability to harvest minerals deep within the soil when they eat a nutrient-rich mix of a variety of plants and grasses,” Jen explains.
On the importance of spring-born lambs spending time out on pasture, Jen says: “During the summer months, mature plants put their energy into setting their seeds for the survival of their species. They bring up deep-rooted minerals that sheep can digest and release to us. Slow maturing lambs fed on mature plants naturally bring beneficial qualities.” Not baaad huh.
All lamb reared by our shepherds Andy at Park Farm and Andy at Fernhill Farm (whose flock graze on the land at Luke’s The Story nearby organic farm too) are nearing hogget age at this time of year. They will have had a full year out on grass. Grass-fed meat tends to be lower in total fat and also has higher levels of ‘good fats’ such as Omega-3 and higher vitamin levels, particularly Vitamin E.
Grass fed vs. grain fed beef: here’s why you need to know the difference.
Pair lamb with new season wild garlic in our recipe.
Discover more ideas on how to use wild garlic in our handy guide.
This blog post was originally published in March 2018 and has since been updated.