Father and son team, Alastair and David MacArthur, are well known in Blackface Sheep circles but they are also regularly making their mark at Luing cattle sales.

The MacArthur family have been in Nunnerie since 1901, with David being the fourth generation in this originally tenanted unit which was purchased almost 40 years ago. The family founded their Luing herd in 1992 after previously running Galloway and Blue-grey herds.

“We were looking for something to breed our own replacements and to produce a bigger calf than we were getting with the Blue-greys. Luings have a good temperament, being a quiet, easy-calving breed with a good thick skin. They can stand up to harsh weather, which suits the farming system here.” said Alastair.

The herd was established with the purchase of two in-calf heifers from the McNees’ Benhar herd, bought at Oban. Several more heifers were bought in the next few years but it wasn’t until 1996 that the first bull was bought in the shape of Glengorm Tyrant. “He left a lasting stamp on our herd and some of this year’s sale bulls go back to his blood,” said Alastair.

The Scottish Farmer:

Hardy heifers that bound for future sale at Dingwall in May Ref:RH100120062  

Calving starts at the end of March, outside if the weather is favourable and some of the cows take full advantage of their 1000-acre block hiding in sheltered glens.

In spells of stormy weather, batches of cows are brought into the shed away from the muck round the ring feeders, letting them back onto clean areas as soon as they’ve calved. The team calf heifers at three-years-old so that they are mature enough to run with the cows.

They are quite capable at calving at two-year-old but would require separate management, the boys said. Cows with calves forage on the hill all summer with the bulls being introduced mid-June.

“Cattle grazing is good for our hill which is mainly molinia. It encourages diversity in plant species and provides a habitat for a wealth of waders and other bird life. Cattle grazing also provides a natural fire break between the forested areas which surround the farm,” pointed out Alastair.

Calves are speaned in late November and moved to Muirhouse where they are in-wintered. This year’s calves averaged over 300kg at weaning, without creep feed and straight from the hill.

“The only benefit from the Beef Efficiency Scheme to date is that we have started weighing cattle and can monitor growth and performance a lot better,” said David.

The Scottish Farmer:

Some of the two year old heifer crop, being retain for breeding Ref:RH100120056

Cows are out-wintered but because the hill is so wet they are offered big bale silage and mineral blocks on a gravelly area from late November.

The team aims to buy a stock bull every two to three years with emphasis on breeding a medium-sized hardy hill cow.

“Our most influential purchase to date has to be Harehead Davy Dee which we bought in 2004 for 8000gns.

“He was roan, polled and had great character, just a bit different. His first crop of daughters sold up to 2700gns, averaging 1800gns and we still have 25 of his daughters in the herd,” said Alastair.

In 2008, the MacArthurs sold a Davy Dee son, Nunnerie Harvey, for 14000gns to the sire’s breeder, Neil Anderson, manager at Harehead. Harvey then went on to sire the dearest Luing bull to date, Harehead Mourie, which sold for 20,000gns. They have sold a few other bulls over the years, topping at 5500gns at both Castle Douglas and Dingwall.

The Scottish Farmer:

some of the later calving cows out on a misty hill  Ref:RH100120053

Luings have always been promoted as a cow breed and their emphasis has always been on improving stock and sale heifers. Alastair started selling in-calf heifers at Castle Douglas in 1999 and moved on to selling bulling heifers a year or two later.

In the decade from 2006, the bulling heifers averaged just shy of £1400. In 2018, they changed policy and sold bulling heifers at the October breed sale in Stirling, with 28 heifers averaging £1885.

“The main reason for selling in the autumn is so that the cattle can be taken straight from the field, saving three months feeding and allowing easier management for buyers,” said David.

Originally,most of the male calves were fattened and sold through a farmer’s market or to an organic butcher. Later, yearling bullocks were sold at the native breed sale at the Caledonian Mart, Stirling.

For the past couple of years, the stronger calves have been finished as bulls, averaging 350kg dw at 15 months. Younger bullocks have been finished on grass at 18 to 19 months, whilst a few have been roughly wintered and finished averaging 395kg dw at 27 months. “The breed has great versatility and can adapt to any finishing system,” said Alastair.

The Nunnerie Luing herd is in the Cattle Health Scheme, with a high health status and have been a closed herd apart from bull purchases for more than 10 years. It has been accredited for BVD and is Johnes Risk level 1, with all sale stock testing clear from IBR and Lepto.

The breed’s unique inspection scheme for bull mothers gives potential buyers a reliable source of information about sale bulls.

With the Luing sale at Castle Douglas fast approaching, the team is putting those all-important last minute preparations into their bulls with help from freelance stockman, Dennis Gall.

The Scottish Farmer:

Line up of bulls bound for sale at Castle Douglas, Xfactor,Xenon,Xpert and Xander Ref:RH100120051  

The current senior stock bull, Finlarg Tornado – which was bought in 2017 for 17,000gns – is the sire of this year’s crop of bulls. “We are delighted with both his heifer and bull calves,” said David.

This year will see Nunnerie’s biggest consignment of bulls to date with six entered for Castle Douglas – Nunnerie Xcalibur, Xfactor, Xander, Xaviour, Xpert and Xenon.

A further two bulls, also by Tornado, are destined for Dingwall, in May, along with some younger heifers.

The MacArthurs are also looking forward to seeing the offspring from last year’s purchase – the 17,000gns Harehead Walker – in a few months. “Walker is the fourth Harehead bull we have purchased but would like to stress that it is not because Neil and Ronnie have the biggest drink kist at Castle Douglas,” joked Alastair.

Native breeds are definitely on the up, with hardy, easily managed and low input Luings in the forefront of the revival.

“Under the onslaught of propaganda about climate change and veganism, we still have a good story to tell and must make a better job of publicising it. There is no alternative to cattle and sheep grazing on much of this farm and we already have a reasonable amount of forestry.

“Despite being older and arguably wiser, I don’t foresee a big change in our traditional way of managing the hill and our stock in the near future,” concluded Alastair.

The Scottish Farmer:

A cow and calf outfit grazing on some of the ground at Nunnerie

Fun facts

If you could change one thing, what would it be? The weather. We get a lot of wind and rain, annual rainfall 1362 mm. Too much is certainly better than not enough though.

What are your hobbies? Alastair and David both have played rugby for Biggar and enjoy watching games and club international trips.

Best advice ever received? Not to worry about too much about the short term and try to focus on the future. Looking back some of the crises such as BSE and Scrapie are now merely short blips. Now we have veganism and climate change. We try to farm sustainably and sequester carbon. We plant trees, control vermin and encourage waders and black grouse. If we have to change our plans for every nutter of the month then we will get nowhere.

Biggest achievement to date: Selling home-bred bull Nunnerie Harvey for 14000gns, equalling the breed record at the time and selling a bull to Luing the same year.

On the sheep side, breaking the record for a shearling ram of any breed, selling at £100,000 to the Campbells of Glenrath at Lanark last October. This was five years after selling the first Blackface ram lamb at the same price, again at Lanark to Elmscleugh.

Outwith the livestock though our greatest achievement has to be the weans, David and Fiona!

The Scottish Farmer:

view down to Nunnerie from the misty hillside Ref:RH100120061  

Fact file:

  • Family farming business comprising Nunnerie, Annieston and Muirhouse. Partners Alastair, Ann and David with part-time assistant Fiona keeping them in order.
  • Nunnerie extends to 3750 acres in the Lowther hills rising from 950 to 200 feet. Stocked with 70 pedigree Luing Cattle and 1200 pure Blackface sheep. Mainly rough hill with around 150 acres enclosed and 50 acres of arable ground for silage production. Annieston and Muirhouse extend to around 600 acres of previously quarried ground near Biggar purchased gradually over 20 years. Stocking1400 ewes including all old ewes from Nunnerie, as well as Bluefaced Leicester, Mules and Texels, looked after by shepherds Derek Brown and Craig Thornborrow.
  • All Nunnerie lambs fattened here, mostly marketed through Dunbia.