AS Scotland’s most popular and prolific sheep breed, the Scotch Mule has been a staple of farm breeding programmes up and down the country for decades, and with ever increasing expenses, it is a breed that can hold its own and turn a profit. 

It’s not an easy task though, as David Gray and daughter, Heather, will vouch for. David’s response of ‘not too terrible’ when you ask him how he’s doing just about sums up the industry at the moment as while prices are considered good, they’re not on a par with rising management costs. 

It’s for this reason that the duo, who run the 1000 acres of Drumnessie to the north of Banton, on the outskirts of Kilsyth, are cutting back on stock numbers as well as the number of acres rented elsewhere from 1000 to nearer 400. They’ve already made a start on reducing stock levels as the mixed flock of what was once above the 2000 mark has been reduced to around 1850 with the aim of falling nearer 1400 ewes. It’s a similar story with the suckler cow herd, as 100 have been reduced to 38.

“The cost of renting land is just getting too dear for what we get out of it, so we’re cutting everything back a fair bit,” said David.

“We’re changing to a more outside cow now too, as when you’re buying straw at £27 a bale, the cost of keeping cows inside just isn’t worth it,” he added of the herd that was mostly Black Limousin crosses and is now including more Simmental breeding. 

While the resulting Limousin and Charolais-sired calves sell well through the store ring at United Auctions, with the most recent batch cashing in to average £1200, it’s the sheep flocks that are the real backbone of the business at Drumnessie. 

The Grays run around 1600 Blackface ewes which are covered by the Bluefaced Leicester to produce Mule lambs for sale, as well as the 250-strong Mule flock which produces Texel-sired lambs to meet the fat market. It’s the sale of around 650 Mule ewe lambs each year that provide the biggest income though, with pens selling through United Auctions’ and Caledonian Marts’ Stirling centres to a top of £168 last year, with a personal best of £170 received three years ago. 

The Scottish Farmer:

         Some of this year's ewe lambs for sale, all by Cottage sires

“Mule ewe lambs have been selling well in the last 10 years, they’ve met a steady trade but we couldn’t really ask for any higher prices as that makes them too dear and gives for a reduced profit for the next man.

“But we’ve been getting a bad go with the Mule wedders so decided to hang them up at Scotbeef instead,” added Davie, pointing out that the £7 per head difference for around 800 Mules wedders soon adds up. 

The Texel-sired lambs, however, are still sold through the market, with the first lot away during the week of the Highland show. These made £117 per head, which was up slightly on the year and a welcome boost of cash considering they were finished from grass and not fed any concentrates. 

The breeding programme at Drumnessie begins with the Blackie ewe and the majority of these have been bought privately as gimmers from Dall and Littleport for the last 20 years, with additional draft ewes coming from Glenfernate and West Bracklinn. 

“They’ve got to be stretchy with good skins and nice hair as the old boys say good hair is a sign of more milk, but there’s far too many small Blackie sheep these days which are no use for breeding Mules,” David commented. 

As for the Bluefaced Leicester sires, these are mostly bought from Jimmy and Wendy Bell’s Cottage flock, with a group of six or so bought through Hawes and Cockermouth last year to average nearly £1000. 

“Lambs were sharper and cockier with the old type of Blue used six or eight years ago and they’re more flat-eared now, but the skins are definitely getting better,” observed Davie.

“They might not be as cocky nowadays but you’ve got to go with the fashion – if you don’t you’ll get left behind. They’ve got to have nice, clean colours, whether they breed any better or not I don’t know, but they’ve got to look smart in the ring. It’s a bit of work to bring them out, with dye costing around £4 per lamb, but it’s worth it when you get a good price.”

The Scottish Farmer:

      Another group of ewe lambs for sale, again by Cottage tups

While the sale results are what matters for the bottom line, it’s not plain sailing to get there and Davie is quick to point out many of his concerns with the direction the sheep industry is heading in. 

“Industry prices seem to be holding up well at the moment and that will help at sales of breeding stock, but no-one seems to know what Brexit is going to bring us. If we lose our subsidies, half the farms will go. In this area alone there’s hardly a farm that stands on its own feet – either the wife has a job or they’ve looked to bed and breakfast and other diversifications in order to survive. 

“Red tape is another issue, and there’s no need for most of it. I was lucky that my dad dragged me through the books and protocols years ago, but for youngsters it’s a lot to take on. And most of it, such as tagging ahead of slaughter, is just an unneeded expense. We’re tagging our fat lambs and an hour later they’re slaughtered and the head is in the bin, costing us around 90p per tag,” said Davie, adding that in one year the Drumnessie bill was more than £4000 for sheep and cattle tags alone. 

He continued: “The price of everything has gone up bar what we sell. In the early 1980s sheep were selling well but nowadays we’re not getting much more per head even though the outgoing costs have gone through the roof. 

“The wool price is no good at the minute either. When my dad was here the wool paid the rent for the year, but now it wouldn’t even pay for a good night out. I work away at shearing and do it myself in between harvesting the hay and silage, and Heather has just started too, but the price you get wouldn’t cover the cost of shearers if we had to bring them in.”

Flock health is another issue concerning the Drumnessie duo, with the pair noting a threefold increase in the number of fluke doses per year, as well as the death rate in the flock. 

“A lot of folk say they don’t lose lambs on the hill but I do, and I know everyone else does too. Our hill ewes scanned at 135%, compared to 155% in the field flock, but I’d say we lost at least 15% of that. 

“This year we had a bad go with prolapses in the field ewes. Generally we’re not so bad with half a dozen or so, but we stopped counting after 40. There’s a far bigger death rate in sheep these days too compared to 30 years ago. In Blackies, Jaagsiekte is a big problem and something needs to be done about it. Some breeders are scanning for it but it’s leading to way too many deaths,” said David. 

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as competing on the local show circuit brings in a fair deal of success and acts as a good shop window for the Drumnessie stock. The Grays have taken numerous titles at Drymen, Gargunnock and Braco shows, including the championship at Drymen with a two-crop ewe earlier this year. Making up the show team this year are the ewe, a hogg and five ewe lambs. 

The Scottish Farmer:

               One of the favourites on the show team, pictured with her Glenfernate-bred mother

“It’s great competition going against your pals but we’ve got a good crowd here and it’s great for socialising. Plus, after lambing for two months it’s good to have a blow out,” pointed out Heather, who has a keen interest in working dogs and has a mother and son duo, Jess and Bo, as well as Bundy the Kelpie, as part of the current team. 

It may be a testing time in the industry with an uncertain future ahead of us, but for the Grays there’s no comparison to the Mule, as Davie concludes: “The Mule is a very prolific breed, producing two big lambs that finish off grass alone. There have been lots of cross breeds that have been used but the Mule will always shine through when it comes to the number of lambs produced to meet market specifications.”