Farmer’s point of view: Good and hardy sheep do not need delicate heads

Off-farm visits have been rare due to Covid, so it was nice to attend two contrasting open days over the past few weeks.

The first was at Southfield, near Hawick, where Innovis – registered performance sheep breeders – recently became tenants of the Buccleuch Estate. Considerable investment has been made in the farm, which was previously run in a very traditional way.

Lime was spread, the water supply was renewed and the fields were divided with modern electric fencing technology. Recently weaned ewes from Innovis’ hybrids such as Abertex, Primera and Highlander were shown in the fields.

Of particular interest to me was a new establishment breeding South Country and Lairg-type North Country Cheviots. The original herds of each have been severely culled in an effort to increase production and reduce management.

As expected, introduction of the new genetics was a challenge as there were no Cheviot herds using the same selection criteria. Buying rams selected for visual appeal in the market would have slowed progress towards Innovis’ goals.

While telling us about the company’s hill sheep initiative, a comment made by CEO Dewi Jones caught my attention. He explained why they chose Cheviots: “It’s no use trying horned breeds because their breeders will never change.”

A week later I went to a second open day at Wedderlie in Lammermuirs. The farm has been owned by the family for 80 years.

Like Southfield, there has been a lot of investment recently. As well as the well-known Aberdeen Angus flock, the farm has a large flock of North Country Cheviot sheep of the Lairg type, which replaced a similarly sized flock of Blackies a few years ago.

Wedderley marches with Rawburn, whom I brought up. When we left Rawburn in 1993, we had four ewes with a total of 2,250 sheep.

Both Wedderlie and Rawburn marched in bed with two hirsel Blackies and the same size Kettleshiel I ran for 15 years next to the Bedshiel. Both farms had flocks of 1,150 Blackface sheep.

Now each of these farms has either converted to North Country Cheviots of the Lairg type, or abandoned their sheep altogether.

Between 2012 and 2021, 1,000 Blackface herds across Britain have been destroyed. The number of sheep decreased from 750 thousand to 461 thousand. When I started farming in 1964, every hill farm in the Lammermuirs was fully stocked with Blackies.

A quarter of all sheep in England were black. I thought the Blackie was the best breed we had and was the backbone of the whole British sheep industry.

At that time, one shepherd looked after about 500 sheep. I pastured 620 sheep on the south side of Rawburn, which is next to Wedderley. The size of the hirsel was dictated by the area the shepherd could walk.

Feed was what a sheep could pull, and often poor quality grass was only fed in heavy snow. The working sheep at that time were the ones that survived the overstocked, underfed regime.

As the quad bikes were introduced, the hirsel sizes doubled and we started feeding Ewebol Hill Sheep Pencils and then fodder blocks. As the regime changed, so did Blackie.

Brocket (black and white) faces changed to “bell eyebrows” (a white flame on the forehead), later fleshy (grey) noses or black heads. Recently, the heads have become smaller and the horns have twisted in new directions.

Black wool stains—always a death sentence—were tolerated. What did not change was the general resistance of breeders to any form of selection based on commercial criteria.

I have often written or spoken of the profound influence that Willie Girvan’s selection method had on me at Bothwell, Lammermuirs.

My father bought the farm from him in 1958. Willie had a contract with the owners of Dalwyne and Craigman in which he bought his Blackie rams for £10.

After their owners selected the fancier lambs for the ram sale, Willie picked out the ones they didn’t want. He chose the heaviest and the best, regardless of the color of his face. When we took Bothwell, almost every lamb came out of the fat of the hill at weaning.

My father was a very commercial herd master, buying better and more expensive rams than Willie, who was thrifty and single-minded by accepted standards. We have never fattened lambs from their mothers as much as he did.

I never left the lesson of either breeding cattle or sheep farming.

Few can overlook the external conditions affecting Blackie. The empty cottages at the top of the glen indicate a growing desire to live away from civilization.

The blackbird’s association with the heather land, which is also the habitat of the corn, is a factor. The increasing attacks by land and air predators receiving legal protection must be very discouraging. The recent massive price hike in hill land for tree planting will add to the pressure.

It would be easy to dismiss the decline in numbers as “just one of those” or “it couldn’t be helped”, but this ignores the fact that in many cases sheep farming continues with other breeds.

In my lifetime I have read how many farmers in New Zealand have added 2kg to the finished weight of their grazing lambs without increasing the size of their dams; how uncontrolled lambs are now normal and how structural and parasite problems have been eliminated.

I often wonder where Blackie would be now if the leading breeders of the same era had done something similar and paid less attention to ‘looks’.

Liz Truss’ deal with Australia and New Zealand shows how she values ​​the importance of food production in the UK and means their farmers have legal rights for several years where previously negotiated. to send as many lambs as they desired to England.

I think of Hemingway how you go bankrupt… ‘Gradually, then suddenly.’

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