The Weir family
Report and Photographs Published by the The Scottish Farmer in 2015
Hill sheep farming without a Single Farm Payment is far from easy, but it is possible with skill, determination, a serious amount of hard graft and of course, the right type of sheep, and for Craig and Stuart Weir, there is only one - the South Country Cheviot. But then, after years of experience of breeding and working with Scotland's charismatic Southie at Mainside, Hownam, for former president, Tim Douglas, which included notable success in the show and sale ring, you wouldn't expect anything else.
As it is, Craig, who lives with his wife Janice, received his long service medal for 30 tears 'herding' at Mainside, with Mr Douglas in 2009, and the exact same year, was fortunate enough to take over the tenancy when Mr Douglas retired. This of course meant forking out a huge amount of capital, as all 1500 ewes on the 3,000 acre unit which included Mainside and Heatherhope, had to be valued and a new 15 year lease agreed with the owner, The Duke of Roxburgh.
There was never any disputing future farm policy though, as with son, Stuart already doing a lot of free-lance shearing, sheep and tractor work locally, and his wife Laura working locally in Kelso, all were keen to continue as before. Consequently, Craig continues to attend to the 720 South Country ewes on Mainside, while Stuart herds the 750 Lairg-type Cheviots on the harder, peat bog ground at Heatherhope, which rises to 1850ft above sea level.
"i've virtually been born and brought up with the South Country Cheviot sheep and South Country folk who are and were always great banter," said Craig, highlighting the late Matty Little as a huge inspiration to him in his younger days. " south Country Cheviot sheep are great mothers and full of character and they are also so much better now than they used to be. There is far more scope and scale to the breed now - lambing problems are non-existent," he said. one of the die-hard breeders himself now, Craig is adamant the traditional breeding policies of his predecessors, ie selling tups as two-shears instead of pushing them to cash them in as shearling rams, should be continued.
"The South Country Cheviot is your real slow maturing breed and great for selling as hoggs in the spring as you are never penalised for hoggs with teeth coming through, We never like to feed our two-sh ear tups much before the sale and rear them naturally from birth instead of pushing them. We aslo like to use our best shearling rams at home first as this not only produces a more uniform type of female, but also keeps our input costs down and helps to maintain the breed's longevity and late maturing characteristics. I really don't think selling South Country Cheviot tups as shearling rams helps the breed," Craig said, adding that his two-shear tups for this year's sales at Lockerbie, have never had a bite of feeding this year.The exact same policy is used among the Lairg-type Cheviots on Heatherhope which was introduced in 2002 by Tim, after the then flock of Blackfaced ewes produced draft ewes that sold for dismally lo ewes with the result, the ewes are all full blood Cheviots, but, being run on harder ground than the South Country Cheviots, require a bit more work.
"The Lairg-type will produce a slightly better lamb and a more saleable female, but she is slightly bigger and needs more looking after and more feeding here," said Stuart. "Our Lairg-type ewes get hay and crystalyx blocks from the end of February onwards after the shooting season has finished on the estate, whereas the Southies only get hay if there is deep snow on the ground."
Both types however produce similar crops at 115 - 130% at scanning, with twin-bearing ewes of both types at this stage introduced to ewe rolls
With three different hefts on Mainside and eight on heatherhope, and just a handful of in-bye fields, only a select number of ewes can be drawn to individual tups, with the remained tupped in field enclosures. However the few that are able to be tupped to individual rams, appear to perform exceptionally well, having sold to a top of £9,000 and £4,500 for Mainside Starburst and Mainside Altra Bright, respectively, since Craig and Stuart went on their own.
"We never look to buy tups to breed males, instead we always look for stock tups to breed females so we look for tups with good hair, skin, and good breed character. we also like a good big, black, bold eye, and a black nose," Craig said, adding that he has gone to £1,600 for a stock ram in the past. Single-bearing ewes are lambed in enclosures, but all twin-bearing ewes (normally 400 between the two lots) are lambed in the shed.
Last year the father and son duo crossed all the draft Lairg-type Cheviot ewes to a Texel to lamb at the end of March, which proved successful, producing lamb crops of 135%. These were summered on grass parks at Hayhope, which is rented on an annual basis, with the lambs cashing in at £52 per head, while the ewes have recently sold through Longtown at £66 per head.
This compares to the South Country Cheviot and the Lairg-type Cheviot lambs sold as stores through Lockerbie, last year which worked out at £57 - £60 per head, with the South Country draft ewes cashed at Longtown, that levelled at £70. Craig added: "We're not long finished speaning here, so we always struggle to get the Lairg-type draft ewes in fettle for the sale, and keeping them for that extra year to tup them to a Texel when we had ground at Hayhope, seemed the best option. We'll do it again."
And commenting on the qualities of the store South Country and the Lairg-type Cheviot he said: "A lot of Southie breeders are taking grass in the west to finish their lambs in the spring now as they know there will always be a demand for them and often a good price as their teeth don't come up till June. Some buyers like the Lairg-type stores better than the Southies as they tend to finish earlier than the Southies, but all depends on your system ans when you want to sell them."
This year, the firm is fortunate too in that up to 1,000 lambs of both types have been sold privately for finishing, reducing the risk of a downward swing in the market place. However, they have sold for less than last year. "This has been the tightest year so far - our lambs are already £5 back on the year, so things can only get better here. The one good piece of news is we know we will qualify for some sort of Single Farm Payment, later this year," said Craig.
There's a heap of work to do before then though, with Craig and Stuart in demand to dress sheep for many flockmasters in the area. And, of course, there are sheep to prepare, not only for the Lairg-type ram sale, which was at Lockerbie past on Wednesday, but also the main tup sale of South Country Cheviots at Lockerbie on Monday, 5th October, where the duo have a pair of crackers entered.
We just have to hope the tup sales fair better than the prime lamb sales in recent months, and that this year's Single Farm Payment, appears a lot earlier than expected.