SHEEP and chilli sauce may seem a strange mixture, but farmer Ian Paxton believes he has found the perfect combination.
His flock of 200 breeding ewes at Church Hanborough is currently sheltering under polytunnels.
But when the sheep go outside to graze in May, they will be replaced in the polytunnel by 1,500 chilli plants.
He said: “A couple of summers ago, I was looking at this empty polytunnel and I thought it was a bit of a waste of space.
“Years ago, I had grown field vegetables and I had a polytunnel growing green peppers.
“I thought that wouldn’t work on a small scale because there’s not enough volume so I thought I would try chillies.”
He sowed this year’s seeds a few weeks ago in an electric propagator and will move the pots to a heated greenhouse, then – when the sheep have gone out – plant them in the polytunnel.
He started by selling chilli plants and fresh chillies at farmers’ markets, then made some chilli sauce.
“I thought: ‘This seems to work’ and the next year I had two polytunnels full of pots and I developed another chilli sauce.
“This year I was still picking chillies in January,” he said.
“When the ewes lamb, there will be space for them to go into individual pens in the polytunnel.”
While many farmers have barns to keep their sheep in, Mr Paxton, 70, rents his farmland and doesn’t have a barn.
He was originally a tenant of Oxfordshire County Council, having started farming in his late 20s.
He is “not a great internet user” and a neighbour set up his website in return for a leg of lamb.
His recipes were devised “by experiment” and with help from other sauce makers.
Now he is an expert on chilli varieties, growing up to 16 kinds. Having started by making the sauces himself, he now uses a commercial kitchen in South Oxfordshire.
He loves farmers’ markets, particularly East Oxford, where he can chat to customers from different countries about their cuisine.
“You meet some nice people. They are such a diverse group and they all know their food – you get people from all over the world.”
When lambing has finished in the summer he visits food festivals.
Suppliers include Hampers in Woodstock and Delice in Witney.
Mr Paxton, who lives in Freeland, said: “I have 100 acres, which is not a lot, because I’m 70 and I should be retired . It has been fun – you meet great people.”