Castle Crawford thrive with their South Country Cheviot hill flock
South Country Cheviots are ‘the only choice’ for John Paton’s Castle Crawford flock, based at Crawford, Abington, due to their longevity and mothering abilities which rival any other hill breed.
The flock are regularly hitting scanning percentages of 160% amongst the in-bye ewes, while the hill ewes scan around 140%. Yeld ewes average just 2% annually.
“I’d be disappointed if we had 3% of our ewes yeld, which I think is very good on a hill farm, so the breed does us well in that respect as we tend to get around 20 empty ewes a year,” said James Cochrane, who has been shepherd at Castle Crawford since he left school 14 years ago.
“Cheviots are prolific breeders, with good conformation making them easy fleshed and, they’re full of character, so they do really work our system well,” added James.
“The conformation of the Cheviot ewe ensures she is able to look after herself, which is key to any farming system nowadays. This year, I only twinned about 14 ewes out of 880, which is not bad,” said James.
The Cheviot ewes at Castle Crawford are bred pure and run on the hill for five years. After that the top end will be sold at Longtown, with the bottom end of the five-year-olds put to a Texel cross Beltex and will be run for a further two or three years – and sometimes more.
Southie rams are equally long lasting, with stock rams being used for four plus years if they come up with the goods.
“It is very rare for us to see a dead tup. We pretty much have to sell all of them as cast tups through the market once they have done their time. They are just hardy, strong sheep that do well,” said James.
Most years, 100 tup lambs are retained which are whittled down to 40 to go through the summer, with the best shearlings sold at Lockerbie and the remainder retained to run up at home. As many as 50% of the stock rams can be home-bred, with the remainder bought in.
“Although our home-bred tups do well for us, we always need to buy in new bloodlines so we will purchase two or three new tups every year,” added James.
This year, the team has 13 South Country Cheviot shearling rams and two two-shears entered for the main breed sale at Lockerbie, on October 12, and they’l be hoping to achieve a similar trade to last year when they sold 13 to average £1300.
Top price to date for this flock, which is run on the high Molinia grass heather hills at Castle Crawford, is £10,000 achieved in the 2000s for King of the Castle – a price which was almost superseded in 2018 when John and James sold Castle Dynamite for £9000.
Castle Yeoman was the sire of Dynamite and he made a real stamp on the flock, lasting until he was a seven-shear, breeding both sons and daughters that are breeding well for the flock. Another stock ram that has been a stand out success was Crossdykes Juggernaut, which again has left some quality females on the ground and his offspring have bred well.
“Getting good prices at tups sales is great, however our main goal is that the tups go on and do the job for people – we like happy customers,” said James.
“Cheviots make good crossing ewes, with a Texel cross Beltex for producing strong finished lambs, the Texel side gives us the strength and size, whilst the Beltex side produces the shape, to give us the best of both worlds,” said James, who runs a closed flock with the exception of bought in stock rams.
Crossing tups are normally purchased at the Kelso Ram Sales when required.
In the last couple of years, lambs have been finished through Harrison and Hetherington’s weigh and pay scheme at Lockerbie, which this year has seen the cross-bred lambs come in at 40kg mid-August and sell for £85. The first batch of pure Cheviot lambs finished just last week averaging 40kg and sold for £84.
“Cheviots have great conformation to allow them to be finished off grass at the moment relatively easy, so we find no reason to feed them,” James said, adding that he looks to breed sheep with shape and carcase, plus a decent bit of stretch to them, along with good hair.
“In saying that, if you look to stretch the hill ewe too much, they don’t perform as well on the hill and won’t keep their ‘fettle’ and will require more feeding. It is all about shape and conformation – get that right, they will keep their fettle on the hill no problem.
“Although we are more into breeding tups and quality females, it is weight that counts at the end of the day. We will sell more wedder lambs than anything else, so we need to keep the balance right,” said James.
Most years, 240 ewe lambs are retained for breeding, with a further 180 sold privately off farm to regular buyers.
“We were selling the ewe lambs through the market no problem, but when you have the boys coming direct wanting more, it makes the job so much easier,” said James.
Some 90 five-year-old ewes are sold annually at the annual ewe sale at Longtown, which this year is on September 30.
All lambing is done outside, with the crosses starting at the beginning of April and the Cheviots just one week later.
“We need to work with a breed we know can perform outside. I do all the lambing myself, so it’s easier lambing outside all the time rather than lambing inside and outside.
“Bad weather is the only issue when you are lambing outside. If the weather is poor, it can create problems and if the weather is good, it makes life so much easier,” said James. “However, our is a dry hill and mostly south facing, so it can burn out pretty bad in the summer. It is better suited to a wet summer than a dry one.”
On the plus side, the new shed and handling system built just last year, has been a God send to James, enabling him to do sheep work more efficiently on his own instead of having to look for additional labour.
Ewes have access to Starlyne trace element salt blocks all year round, and six weeks prior to lambing, in-bye females are fed Carrs Billington ewe rolls, with the hill twins brought into fields a month before lambing and are fed a similar amount.
We tend to not feed a lot as the Cheviot ewe is a hardy ewe that can keep her fettle well even in a bad spring, so she doesn’t require much feeding at all.
“Ewe hoggs are home-wintered in-bye in the fields it can be tough for them in a poor winter, but they make it up in the summer, by growing and thriving year on year.
“We’ve also increased flock numbers because there is plenty of grass in the summer, but it is all about balance. We don’t want too many mouths during the winter, so we just need to be careful,” said James.
He is also a fan of showing and regularly exhibits at the four local shows, Dumfries, Peebles, Abington and Moffat, with this year being the exception.
“It is a great shop window for advertising stock for sales and you can always get a good laugh in the beer tent at the end of the day!” said James, who has taken inter-breed honours in the past at Moffat with a Southie shearling.
“All four are strong shows for Cheviots, so we are lucky they’re not too far away. It is great to be competing in such strong classes locally, said James.
With the back-end sales next on the horizon, it is a crucial time of year for all and James’ main concern is that they run smoothly and as ‘normal’ as possible.
“The sheep trade is on a high, and long may it continue. The future looks promising, but with the fear of more trees being planted, it is worrying to think that some flocks could disappear.
'As far as Brexit is concerned, no one knows what will happen, we just have to hope the trade remains strong throughout. It has been a great year for sheep, despite Covid-19 – we just have to hope that all sales can go ahead. All we can do is get on with the work and hope for the best,” concluded James.
On the Spot questions
Best investment: New shed and sheep handling system which has made the job so much easier.
Best advice: Breed for ewes and the tups will come.
Best achievement: Breeding the 9000gns Castle Dynamite, two years ago… My goal is to beat the farm record of 10,000gns.
Biggest threat: Increasing amount of trees being planted on the hills which are taking away big flocks. The government is coming in with big money grants so that trees are worth more money on the hill than sheep!!
Livestock: 880 South Country Cheviot ewes, of which 790 will be kept pure on the hills and 90 in-bye ewes will be tupped to a Texel cross Beltex sire. There have been no cattle at Castle Crawford since the early 1990s apart from summer grazers, there is 25 acres of silage which is fed to the suckler cows at Gateslack, where John farms, 362 acres at Durisdeer.
Acres: 1546 acres, which reaches 1800ft above sea level.
Involved: Owned by the Paton family, since 1966, with shepherd, James Cochrane attending to the majority of the work, with the help from John and his stockman, Jake Allison, with the occasional help from James' girlfriend, Claire Wilson.
(By kind permission of the Scottish Farmer)