Report and Photographs Published by the The Scottish Farmer in 2013
Over the years the South Country Cheviot has seen an increase in interest from both commercial and pedigree breeders, producing new breed records in the sales ring along with multiple five-figure prices.
But not only that, the breed is proving that it can stand next to the terminal breeds when it comes to producing store
lambs and grass-finished prime lambs, while the Cheviot Mule is becoming an even more popular breeding sheep for commercial flocks. And for Jim Robertson, who farms at Becks, Buccleuch Estate, near Langholm, producing a strong lamb crop and top prices in the sale ring go hand in hand.
"We had Southies when I was growing up at Dryhope, Yarrow, and when I arrived at Becks some 33 years ago there was a flock of 900 or so," begins Jim, who now runs a flock of 1,000 South Country Cheviots on the 1760 acres of Becks.
These run alongside some 50 pedigree Texels owned with partner, Sharon Graham, which have seen their own success of late, having picked up the inter-breed title at Langholm Show, last year, with a Templand Nixon daughter as well as averaging £740 for 10 head at the recent Kelso Ram Sales.
Also run is a herd of 100 Galloway cows which are either pure-bred to the Galloway bull or to the recently purchased Whitebred Shorthorn for producing Blue-Greys.
The resulting Galloway calves are then finished around the 30 month mark and sold to Steven Airey to butcher and sell through his Airey Farm Shop, in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria, which supplies two Michelin star restaurants in London.
"Over the years I've noticed a lot of changes in the Cheviot breed, although it has always been good conformation wise. We're getting far more lambs from our ewes and the sheep are generally a lot bigger - which is a good thing as they are far easier lambed nowadays," said Mr Robertson.
"But it is not just pedigree breeders buying into the breed as there's a lot of commercial buyers looking to produce Cheviot Mules by crossing to a Blackface ewe. They make a great Mule type and Cheviot Mules are great sheep - I just wish we had more time to breed them ourselves!
"I think they're in such great demand because they are a great carcase and the ability to fatten off grass alone," he added.
There have been several sires over the years which have influenced and developed the flock into what it is today. The first to really make his mark at Becks was a Glenochar ram, a sire purchased at a cast tup sale for £36 in the 80's which went on to sire sons to a top of £2200.
More recently in 2004, Mr Robertson invested in Glengeith X Factor, a Winterhope Quarry son out of a Bloch Chieftain ewe, at Lockerbie for £14,000 - a new breed record at the time. X Factor sons have since gone on to amass £36,000 between them.
And the £1200 Glengeith Challenge has been a good female breeder for the Becks flock. These investments have certainly paid dividends as Becks tups prove popular at breed sales and, in 2011, two went on to top the Lockerbie sale at £12,000 apiece.
The first was Becks Impeccable, a Kale JR son which goes back to Glendearg JR, while the second was Becks Impact, by the home-bred Becks Em and Em, himself by the afore mentioned X Factor.
And from the Becks flock this year is a group of shearlings of which half will head to the Lockerbie sale on October 7th with the remainder destined for Longtown later in the month at a relatively new sale which is proving popular with vendors and buyers alike.
A group of tups will be lead at Lockerbie by sons of the privately purchased Glenochar Desert Fox, with sons of the £9,000 Mainside Starburst and the £9,000 Stirkfield Toptip following as well as several by home-bred sires - Becks Impress, by Kale JR, and Becks Em and Em.
As are many top breeders, Jim is very particular about the sires purchased for the flock - usually picking them out at the various tup nights before the breed sales - as well as the home-bred males he offers for sale.
"We pick around 100 ram lambs showing potential to make stock sires in the month of May but they've to make the grade," explains Jim. "conformation is key - I'm looking for good legs, skins and a broad back. Then the head comes into consideration. It needs to have plenty character, good white hair, a wide crown and, most of all, a big black muzzle. But most importantly, it needs to be good on it's legs as it will spend the majority of it's life on them.
At speaning time, which occurs in September, all the young lambs are taken to winter grazing, "which can be anywhere between Duns and Dumfries," according to Jim. He further explained that they go on to sell through the prime ring at Cumberland and Dumfriesshire Farmers Mart's Longtown centre, of which he is a director, from February through to April alongside a few store lambs bought to turn around.
"Last year's hoggs sold through Longtown earlier this year cashed in at around £85 per head, which was down on last year but to be expected with the good trade seen last year."
But, as it might work out to have the boost of capital at the beginning of the year, Mr Robertson is keen to stress that it's not the hill farmers who should be fattening and selling their own lambs.
"Us hill boys Shouldn't be chasing hoggs around in the spring. Instead, we should be finished dealing with lambs when they're speaned in September so that we can concentrate on the next part of the cycle - getting our sheep in order for the breeding season. After all,it's the lamb crop that pays the bills, not the tups," he concluded.