HEADING to the Highland is the staple of the summer show season for many, whether you show stock, man trade stands or head along to see some of the best livestock and produce the country, and further afield, has to offer. 

For those taking the cream of their livestock crop, winning one of the prestigious tickets, whether it be the red, white and blue champion rosette or a class placing, is definitely a highlight and proves that winning at the four-day event is at the top of the ‘to do’ list.

There’s one breeder from Fife that has taken her fair share of the prizes over the years, and hasn’t missed a single show since the early 1980s. Rena Douglas runs the Drum flock of Shetland sheep on the outskirts of the village of Craigrothie, near Cupar, and has been an active campaigner for the breed in the sheep industry but only fell in to the sector in a roundabout way. 

It all started back in 1982 when she was a district nurse and a local friend gave her an in-lamb Jacob ewe one winter that went on to produce a pair of tup lambs. One of these lambs went on to stand – although Rena insists she ‘didn’t have a clue how to stand a sheep up properly’ – reserve champion at Perth Show before going on to take the same honours at the society show and sale, and eventually appear and win at the Highland. 

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For Rena, that was it. Her first taste of success in the show ring and some of her own breeding going on to do well for others meant she was hooked. And so it was that a few years later she went with a friend to take a look at Shetland sheep near Newburgh. Here, she was persuaded to buy two ewe lambs which were later joined by a tup loaned from Andrew Redpath, who proved to be a big influence on Rena as well as in the Shetland Sheep Society. But her first visit to the Highland with Shetland sheep wasn’t until 1989 when a friend from Shetland sent down a moorit tup lamb. 

“We were at my daughter’s wedding on the Saturday and headed from the reception straight to the Highland to show ‘Eric the Red’, who was a rather feisty chap,” Rena recalled fondly. “He took the championship that year and I was smitten with both showing and Shetlands.”

Since that first win in the Shetland section, Rena’s Drum flock has secured no fewer than five further Highland Show titles, including in 1992 and 1995 with home-bred white ewes, 1999 with a white tup named Drum Jings – which was a favourite for Rena as she remembered when he was born – again in 2002 with another white ewe, and lastly in 2011 with a bought-in white ewe known as Rench Dyllis. The flock has also scooped a number of top titles at local shows, but it’s the Highland that really sticks out as the one to win. 

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“There’s nothing beats the Highland. There’s a real buzz about it as you get to see folk you haven’t seen since the previous year, and there’s a great atmosphere as everyone gets their sheep ready for the show ring. I go to Melton Mowbray to show as well as the Great Yorkshire, but the Highland has a real agricultural feel to it and is a day for the farmer with all the machinery and stock on show.”

Competition is fierce in the Shetland section as it often attracts some of the highest entries with up to 20 in a class. There is plenty of scrutiny round the ring side too, as many of the breeders on Shetland make the journey to see that breed standards are being maintained. 

Rena also notes the differences between Scottish Shetland sheep and those south of the Border: “Those bred in England, which are mostly coloured with fewer white sheep, tend to have better wool but can be narrower and have weaker bone. We have a much wider range of sheep up here – we have good coloureds and good whites, all with good bone and decent wool but I’ve found the whites tend to be a little softer while the coloureds tend to be narrower. 

“But there is a greater movement of sheep now as southern breeders are buying more from Shetland, and I’ve even sold a Welsh-bred moorit tup to Shetland, so everyone is looking to improve their own breeding.”

Aiming to up her own Shetland standards, Rena bought the white Rigg Gareth son, Ivydene Patronus, last year to inject some fresh genetics in to the flock. He has really improved the wool on this year’s lambs which are all big framed and strong boned. Going back a few years and the Lucky line – a ewe named Drum Lucky and her tup lamb, Drum Lucky Jim – was a good one that produced a number of show winners. 

Living in the village with husband Ian, who takes care of the beautiful garden while Rena manages the equally beautiful flock, has meant she has to rent nearby land to add to her own three acres, with the current 24 acres split between three sites. It’s for this reason that she has reduced numbers in recent years as the movement between each site was taking up too much time. Last year, eight white and 10 coloured ewes were put to the tup and she has a further 16 hoggs coming through that will mostly be offered for sale. 

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These are all lambed outside and in her many years of keeping the breed, Rena has only ever lambed a few and noted that the lack of triplets has made for a much smoother lambing time. Keeping it nice and simple, the ewes are offered a Crystalyx high energy mineral tub throughout the year before switching to the megastart bucket and a small amount of concentrates six weeks prior to lambing to improve milk yields.Opting not to scan the ewes due to the amount of shifting from one field to another, Rena says this hasn’t affected her lambing season in the past few years as the ewes take care of themselves and she’s careful to always keep an empty field so that there is the option of fresh grass should the ewes and lambs need it. 

But as a former chairman of the Shetland Sheep Society who has travelled abroad for judging duties and has even arranged a number of conferences and flock visits for visitors from the UK and overseas, Rena is keen to point out that the Shetland breed is not just for small-scale breeders but has its place in the commercial market too. 

“I’ve been a member of the National Sheep Association for years and served on the committee. To begin with I almost got laughed at when mentioning Shetland sheep, but as the years have gone on the commercial breeders have realised there’s more to Shetland sheep than a hobby breed. I’ve been on the NSA stand at Highland Sheep as well as North Sheep, with a Shetland ewe with lambs at foot. She was a big ewe with pair of Lleyn cross lambs that gathered a lot of comments from the commercial producers on how well she and the lambs looked. 

“I’ve put Bluefaced Leicester ewes and Cheviot ewes to Shetlands, as well as the other way round, and they make great cross sheep. They also seem to make a good cross with a Lleyn or a Beltex, and lambs kill out around the 36kg mark which fits well within the current SQQ specification,” she added. 

Marking another busy Highland Show, Rena has eight entries heading to Ingliston – three rams, two gimmers, a ewe and a tup and a ewe lamb – meaning two trips with the sheep trailer and all the necessary equipment, but she wouldn’t miss her annual ‘holiday’ and catch up with friends for the world.

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