AN EXTRA 1620ha (4000 acres) of rented hill land has been added to Colin and Graeme Smith’s farming business.

The land, about 15 miles from the main farm, will be used to increase breeding sheep numbers dramatically. “We’ve got 600 breeding mule ewes at the moment,” says Graeme. “Over the next couple of years we would aim to increase that to 1600.”

Hill Cheviot ewes will be bought, preferably in good-sized batches with a spread in ages to get them hefted to their new home as quickly as possible.

“The hill Cheviot looks as good an easy-care sheep as there is,” Colin says. The aim will be to run a virtually closed flock, breeding all female replacements. “That will leave us just having to buy in tups,” he says, adding that another reason for choosing the hill Cheviots was that the lambs seem to sell well.

wise move

Although there are no single farm payment entitlements on the newly rented land, the brothers are convinced that it was a wise move to take on additional ground.

“The price was right and we have it on a 364-day grazing let. The owner will then give us first refusal each year to carry on renting,” says Graeme. “So if the hill Cheviot enterprise doesn’t work out, we can think again without having forked out too much.”

But the brothers remain confident of a good future in sheep, the main reason that they jumped at the chance of the extra land when it was offered.

The Cheviots will stay on the hill all summer and be brought down to Towiemore from November until March for winter grazing. “Then the aim would be to return them to the hill for lambing,” Graeme explains. “We are looking for the Lairg-type Cheviots, which are smaller-boned and have smaller heads, which should make for easier lambing.”

In the meantime, calving and lambing are approaching at Towiemore. All cows and heifers are housed now and the aim this year is to keep freshly calved animals inside for about three weeks, instead of putting dam and calf out to pasture just a couple of days after birth.

“Everyone says to get them out as soon as possible after birth. We’ve always done that, but in the past couple of years we’ve had trouble with pneumonia at turnout. It’s an awful lot easier to catch hold of any sickly calves in a shed than to chase them round a field, with the mothers chasing you,” Graeme says. “So this year we will keep them in for a few weeks and see how that goes.”

maximising sfp

In the past fortnight, Colin’s mind has been on how to maximise the farm’s single farm payment. With details now released in Scotland on applying to the national reserve, he hopes that he has a good case for seeking more.

“Since the reference period for the single farm payment (2000-2002 in Scotland) we bought quota for another 25 cows, and increased beef numbers so that we were claiming another 180 on the beef special premium scheme,” Colin says.

With those numbers, the farm’s increase in numbers certainly complies with the minimum 10% expansion needed to qualify for national reserve consideration.

“But it seems that every submission to the national reserve has to be accompanied by a business plan,” he adds. “And I threw that fag packet away.”

Joking aside, having taken advice from the Scottish Executive, Colin hopes that a letter from the bank and details from SAC will provide enough evidence that the farm”s expansion was planned and properly financed.

top-up

If successful, the application to the national reserve won’t mean additional single farm payment entitlements.

“We will just get a top-up on the value of our existing entitlements,” says Colin. “And that will mean that the national reserve rules will apply to all our entitlement, meaning we can’t trade entitlement for five years and we must use it all each year or they will take the national reserve allocation back.”

He aims to have the lengthy form completed by this weekend, well before the Mar 14 deadline. “If we get it submitted in good time, then hopefully we’ll be at the top of the pile and will hear as soon as possible if we’ve been successful,” he says.

shelley22@bun.com