Easier-care sheep are not for me

I’m pleased to report that I have put yet another lambing behind me.

The 2012 lambing season has been the usual hard work, but fairly successful. I was tempted to say simply that it had been successful without mentioning the hard work at all. That way, I would not earn the condemnation of the plethora of advisers who insist that sheep should lamb themselves.

I would have to concede that the flocks of Beltex, Bluefaced Leicester and, to a lesser extent, Blackface sheep that I keep are not the easy-care breeds that are much lauded by many sheepy gurus. They much prefer the breeds that will happily look after themselves while the shepherd is left to while away his days, chatting on the FWI forums (obviously that’s when he’s not working out down at the gym!)

I was pondering that very thought only recently. It was just after I had pounced from my quad bike onto the top of a psychotic pre-natal Blackface ewe that was having difficulty lambing. Whether a man of my advancing years should be performing circus tricks like this is one question, but why would I want to do it at all if there is an easier option available with a different breed?

The answer to the question is, of course, I’m doing it for the money. But I am also doing it for the job satisfaction. The problem with the easy-care types is that it all seems a bit boring.

The overarching principle of breeding them is that the lambs should be produced with as little work as possible. This, in turn, ensures that what you are producing will be a standard product that will not be getting a premium in the market either in terms of looks or carcass quality.

It was only when I gazed down on the newborn pair of mule lambs out of my Blackie ewe that it occurred to me why I have never been seduced by the concept of easy-care sheep. They were a real bonnie pair of lambs. A quick check confirmed that they were both girls. Happy days.

All of a sudden I could hear the curlews calling out on the hill and feel the gentle warmth of the spring sunshine on my cheek. Already my mind had started to race away with the prospect of matching those ewe lambs up with some others to sell at the autumn sales for a premium price. So right there in that one moment, I had job satisfaction with the prospect of making some extra money.

If I’m honest, there is a third – and probably more powerful – motivation for putting in that wee bit of extra effort. As well as the money and the job satisfaction, there is also the prospect of earning the respect or possibly the envy of your fellow breeders with this type of sheep.

Every now and then, when it all comes together, you can have a day in the market that makes it all worthwhile. It might be something as simple as an offhand comment from the auctioneer on the quality of your stock or a well done and a pat on the back as you leave the ring, but you can’t put a value on it.

So, to all those great farmers out there that are prepared to put in that bit of effort to producing something that is a bit special – I salute you. You will already know that it takes loads o’ care and it’s certainly not easy.

Neale McQuistin is an upland beef and sheep farmer in South West Scotland. He farms 365 hectares in partnership with his wife, Janet, much of which is under stewardship for wildlife.

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