The Seven Sisters Sheep Centre at East Dean was a great local tourist attraction for 29 years, writes keen historian Elizabeth Wright, who has marked the closure with a look back at the venue’s history.
Based around a historic 17th century flint barn, visitors could see more than 40 different breeds of sheep, watch cheese making, sheep shearing and wool spinning, browse around the gift shop and enjoy delicious home made snacks in the Hay Rack Tearoom.
There were animals to cuddle, lambs to bottle feed and tractor trailer rides around the farm.
It all began when Terry Wigmore was made redundant from his job as livestock manager on a big Sussex estate, because the farm had a change of policy and went into arable farming.
During his decade of looking after the estate’s livestock, Terry had noted that when lambing time came around there were always hordes of people hanging over the gates watching the lambs being born.
In 1987 he managed to persuade the estate to let him share farm some 70 acres of Sussex downland which couldn’t be utilised because, as a site of scientific interest, it could not be sprayed or fertilised.
He said, “Having come to terms with the redundancy and with so much interest from the public, I decided to make a go of it, and although primarily we were still a working farm, we opened the place up to the public from March to September.”
Most of the original sheep came from the estate’s flock and Terry brought in a few of his personal favourites, pedigree British Milk Sheep, which have a high lambing ration, often quads, sometimes quins.
Other breeds were added as they went along, ending up with probably the biggest variety of sheep in the world, with 47 different breeds on view.
In the first year, although it was not initially not very well known, some 2,000 visitors passed through the Sheep Centre – the peak period being lambing time.
“We had a small counter selling a few gifts alongside our own milk and cheese and I did daily sheep shearing and hand milking demonstrations,” said Terry.
“There were then around 300 ewes on Seven Sisters although to make a living you really need 1,000. When I first started out it was one man to 200 sheep and I was one of the first people in Britain to eventually have a flock of 1,000.
“The old man I trained under said, ‘Ah, you’ll be in a mental home by the time you’re 30’. But I’m still around.”
The greatest proportion of sheep on the farm was British Milk Sheep and their milk was bottled or made up into yoghurts or cheeses on the premises.
At that time Terry said, “We try and sell as much from here as possible, obviously we get a better turnover on that, but we sell to health food shops and restaurants.
“My main problem is that, in the summer, when we’re busy, trying to make a lot isn’t easy, and in the winter, when we could make more we can’t build up too much of a market and then not be able to serve them in the summer. So we try and keep it fairly low key.”
More on the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre in next week’s Herald.