Commercial characteristics will always remain key for Blackface sheep breeder, David Ferguson, whose hard work and grit determination have paid off to enable him to run two hill farms – Drannandow, Newton Stewart and Markdhu, New Luce.

David started ‘herding’ at Drannandow in 1994 for the late Robert Horne, when he was just 17. However, such has been his enthusiasm and ‘kenning’ ability to produce both top quality commercial and breeding stock that he became a partner in the business in 2018, when Mr Horne passed away. He now works alongside semi-retired shepherd, Jimmy McEwan who is also a partner but still gathers the hill on foot.

“I am so appreciative of the opportunity given to me at such a young age, and I want to be able to help the younger generation do the same and keep them involved in the farming industry,” said David.

As a result, young Ruari McTaggart (19) has been working alongside David at Drannandow as a shepherd for the last two years now where they run 1400 Blackie ewes over 1750 hectares which rises to 2350 feet.

Markdhu which has been tenanted by the Ferguson family for 100 years runs 750 Blackie ewes over 1000 hectares, where David is pleased to have dedicated shepherd, Keith McWhirter.

Just last week they got confirmation of the purchase of 73 acres of land at the Kirkland on the outskirts of Minnigaff, which had been previously rented by Drannandow.

Recently the business also took over the lease of neighbouring farm, Barclye where there has been no sheep on the hill for over 10 years.

“I am really proud we have been able to secure this land. Not many people can say they have re-stocked a hill, and, it’s a great opportunity for us to expand on our doorstep,” said David.

At the moment the plan isn't to increase numbers but give the current flock more scope to reduce the need to feed. This is already paying off with the first draw of wedder lambs tipping the scales at 47kg in mid-August straight off their mothers with the remainder averaging 40kg.

"I get as excited about selling my wedders as I do about any other sale in the year and I take great price in the finished product. The large majority of them are sold through the local markets as I feel it's a good advert for people to see them through a live auction," said David.

With experience of farming two separate units and on different types of ground, producing sheep with size and scale takes priority.

"The most important feature in any sheep for me is the body, it must have shape, confirmation and depth of rib for breeding purposes and to enable it to thrive on the hill.

"I am looking to breed tups with traditional characteristics but incorporate a more modern look without compromising the essential traits of a quality Blackface sheep – hair, skin and shape," added David.

Commenting on the tups that have done well for him in recent years, he said a £1600 Craig lamb bought at Newton Stewart in 2008 had a noticeable influence on the female stock.

Another notable purchase, David bought a £9000 Dyke shearling in 2011 which has bred a number of sale tups and good females.

“He put a real stamp on the flock, having bred some of our best lambs and we have managed to use him seven times,” added David.

In 2017, David dug deep and bought a half share of the £20,000 High Croach (Peroni) with Nunnerie and followed this up with the purchase of the £12,000 High Croach (Miller) on the same day at Dalmally.

“l feel I can get better value for money at Newton Stewart. Good bodied tups with good hair at reasonable prices are exactly what I am looking for,” said David.

On the flip side, last year was one of a kind for the flock having not only bagged their first ever five-figure price but also banked a whopping £42,000 at David’s local Newton Stewart market. This was paid for the Drannandow shearling, Belter which is a son of a £3000 Grimmet tup out of a ewe by the £9000 Dyke sire previously mentioned.

“I never saw it coming. That sale was so overwhelming and a real shock. But it is good to know that people believe we have high quality stock to pay that kind of money, to have the highest priced shearling of 2018 was just a dream come true” said David.

The flock also had a good year for the remainder of their tups sold with 12 shearling rams cashing in at £5375 and seven shearlings at Markdhu achieving £1242.

Add to that the business’ 200 ewe lambs sold this year to average £62.50, the five pens of cast ewes that levelled at £79 and two pens of gimmers which sold to average £132, all at Castle Douglas and Newton Stewart.

It is not as if there is any mollycoddling here either as all ewes are naturally tupped and all lambing is done outside, which produces scanned lambing percentages of between 125-155% depending on how high up the sheep are. That’s with as little feeding as possible too.

Lambing outdoors might be as nature intended, but being surrounded by forestry, they can lose lambs to predators, in particular foxes.

Three years ago, over 80 lambs were killed by foxes which resulted in a sniper being drafter in to address the issue. Proving a good investment as he shoots over 30 foxes per year, the following year losses were down to 10 and this year only two.

Showing has never been a big issue for the boys, although they do take sheep to their local events – Stranraer, Wigtown and Colmonell. They like to turn out a big team to support these events and showcase their produce. They have nevertheless enjoyed a pretty good few years, picking up a reserve at every show as well as their first ever championship at Wigtown last year with the £42,000 shearling tup, Belter.

David also loves a day away to a show and his growing reputation within the Blackface world saw him being invited to judge two of the bigger shows – Peebles (2018) and Abington this year. His commitment to the breed has previously saw him take on the role of chairman for the Dumfries and Galloway branch in 2009.

Along with the pure Blackface sheep, the firm run a 30-strong herd of Luing cattle breeding all their own replacements with the exception of stock bulls.

“They are a hardy breed and grow to a decent size with little feeding, although they do get fed rolls and silage during the winter when needed,” said David.

Cattle are wintered and calved outside, with additional heifers sold as bullers privately. At Markdhu there are 20 Galloway cattle roaming the hills with no additional fooder required and fed rolls on the ground during the winter months.

While cattle numbers are likely to remain the same, having acquired more land David is also hopeful to increase flock numbers in the near future and ewes with size and shape.

Most of the Drannandow ground is above the tree line this is harsh rugged terrain unsuitable to even plant trees on and yet the Blackie ewe thrives on it.

"The high hill ewes getting no blocks or feeding through winter I feel they are a great advert for exactly what a Blackie is capable of where other breeds would struggle. It is essential that we as breeders continue to focus on the ewe and make her desirable to commercial buyers.

"My father, Jimmy and Robert Horne have been very supportive to me, along with an understanding family because of the time spent dedicated to improving my flock, and hopefully my contribution can help towards securing the future of the breed," concludes David.