Establishing a viable agricultural business from scratch is far from easy, but share farming with a good working contract, is certainly working a treat for former freelance shepherd, Neil Sandilands.

A finalist in the 2020 Sheep Farmer of the Year, Neil entered a shared partnership agreement with Jedburgh-based arable and livestock farmer, Stephen Withers, from Upper Hundalee, and his feet haven't touched the ground since.

But, after much, blood, sweat and tears and some extremely long, long days, Neil who lives with his partner Lorraine Gotterson, and their young family of Harris (8) and Isla (5), admits they are making money having transformed what was once a mediocre commercial sheep unit into a extremely productive, progressive enterprise that has more than doubled in size.

Ewe numbers have risen from 500 to 2000 and lambing percentages have increased from 161 to 190% plus. Just as importantly, a change of strategy based on various breeds and new markets, coupled with attention to detail at all times, ensures a regular and much improved income.

Having previously been employed by Mr Withers as a general farm worker for a decade, Neil took the plunge to become a freelance shepherd and contract shearer in 2007. However, a year later, Mr Withers soon realised the loss to his business and Neil was offered a share farming partnership.

At that stage, the farm was made up of 450 mostly arable acres, a 70-cow beef herd and 500 Scotch Mules, Suffolk and Texel cross ewes, that were either tupped to a Texel or a Suffolk. A Texel was also put over the 100 bought-in Scotch Mule ewe hoggs with all resultant progeny sold finished off grass.

The Wester Ulston Sheep partnership between Stephen and Neil was established in June 2008, which proved ideal as within a month there was an income to the new business in the sale of a some of the flock's prime lambs.

Neil immediately looked to increase flock numbers by almost 100 per year and gradually bred out the Scotch Mules and replaced them with Cheviot Mules.

"Cheviots and Cheviot Mules are able to carry themselves better throughout the winter and they don't need the same concentrate feeds as Scotch Mules," said Neil.

"I don't want a big ewe when we sit fairly high and rise to 1000ft above sea-level and a Lairg-type Cheviot is ideal when crossed to a traditional Bluefaced Leicester."

Initially, Cheviot Mule ewe lambs were bought at Longtown to establish the new commercial flock, and after seeing how well they performed, Neil then bought 250 hill-type Cheviot ewe lambs from Charlie Symons, at Attonburn as foundation stock to breed his own Cheviot Mules for the partnership. Up to 170 Cheviot ewe lambs are still bought every year from Attonburn, now farmed by Bob Rennie.

With the Cheviot Mule forming the basis of the partnership's fledgling flock, a Beltex is used on the gimmers to breed home-bred Beltex cross females which are put back to a Beltex to breed top quality prime lambs that regularly top St Boswells Auction mart through the autumn and winter months.

At the end of October, just before the lamb trade 'took off' Wester Ulston Sheep sold up to 100 Beltex cross lambs to average £110 per head, and just last week, a similar number of Beltex and Cheviot Mule lambs sold to £131 to level at a phenomenal £121.

Neil added: "Shapey Beltex cross lambs regularly top the market and while they can be slower to finish, they never get too fat. They'll hold their flesh if the trade slips and can be sold a month later when prices have picked up if need be without getting too fat."

In saying that, the partnership's Texel cross lambs bred from the Cheviot Mule, also pay their way, with two draws of wedders able to be sold off grass at good money before weaning in June, while the ewe lambs are mostly all sold for breeding, either through Longtown, St Boswells or privately. Last year, having been speaned onto foggage fields the first week of July and introduced to creep feed, they sold a month later to average £114 for a colossal 515 head. All were on the Heptavac P system, due to customer demand.

Neil also makes full use of the Cheviot Mule ewe by putting her to the tup for a fifth time and selling those ewes with lambs at foot in May, thereby providing a valuable income at a lean time of the year. This enterprise always sells well, with last year's batch selling at £75 per life with 98% of the ewes yielding twins.

With small pedigree flocks of Suffolks, Texels and Beltex, costs of production are kept to a minimum and flock health is maintained, as the best of the tup lambs are used over the flock and sold the following year at Kelso as shearling rams. Last year these averaged £700 across the board when sold either privately or through the virtual online sales.

Such impressive figures don't just appear overnight though and Neil believes ewe condition pre tupping coupled with attention to detail at all times with a particular focus around lambing are key.

Pre-tupping, ewes are given a copper/mineral drench and dozed for fluke and worms. Winter feeding commences in December outside with quality home-grown round bale silage which most years is cut mid June to produce 66%D Value with crude protein levels of 11.5-12.0MJ per kg of DM. Crystalyx blocks are also provided throughout the winter and right up to the point of lambing.

In contrast to previous years and in a bid to maximise grass growth in spring, Neil is feeding a good number of his ewes in a large straw bedded corral erected purely from wooden posts, fence wire and rectangular bales on the outside for additional shelter. It is hoped this 'enclosed housing' will also help to reduce concentrate requirements closer to lambing if ewes are able to keep their condition better being contained in a smaller sheltered area when copious supplies of straw are available, with the resultant muck providing additional fertility to arable fields the following year.

All pure-bred and the Beltex cross ewes have been in-wintered this year too, with the only sheep out in the fields being hill Cheviots which will remain out until they lamb in April

A month inside and there has been no effect on scanning figures, with the flock producing it's highest ever scan at 194% – up 1% on last year and for 100 more ewes. Gimmers however were slightly back on the year while the ewe flock improved. Barren rates were again an impressive 2.5%.

Ewes are then split up according to the number of lambs they are carrying and dozed again for fluke. Six weeks pre-lambing, they're introduced to ewe rolls, with twin bearing ewes having access to 1lb per head per day and triplet mothers up to 1.5lb. Megastart buckets are provided a month prior to lambing.

Three weeks before lambing, Neil increases concentrate intakes to 2lb for the twins split in two 1lb feeds, early morning and late afternoon, with the triplet mothers fed 3lb a day, again split in two feeds.

Lambing starts with the pedigree ewes early March, all of which are lambed inside on straw bedded courts, with the aid of a camera, which with smaller numbers due at this time, saves Neil having to travel back and forth during the night when his house is located half a mile away from the farm.

The bulk of the lambing doesn't kick off until March 25, when the Cheviot Mules and the Beltex cross ewes start. It's at this time that William Ballantyne comes to assist as a night lamber for five weeks, while Scott Thomson and usually another, are taken on to help out with the day time lambing along with partner Lorraine and the kids who all like to help out.

Again, all are lambed inside on straw bedded courts and put into individual pens for up to 24 hours after to ensure each lamb has received sufficient colostrum and has bonded with its mother. Lambs also have their navels dipped in iodine at birth and are given a 0.5ml antibiotic injection. Pens are disinfected after every ewe and fresh straw is added.

Neil has stopped drenching for watery mouth when the disease had little if any impact and since then has only seen three lambs affected. He does however still inject ewes at the base of the ear with Cydectin to reduce the worm burden when they're put out to grass with their lambs.

Pure Cheviots which have had two turns to a Blue tup, to produce home-bred replacements start lambing from April 10 onwards.

Any ewes which have caused problems at lambing or any other time of year, are given a red tag and are put down the road.

Weeding out those problem females, improved overall flock management and the business' ongoing investment in soil fertility has also helped to boost lambing percentages over the years. Neil also believes the increased number in home-bred females and weaning earlier, at the end of June, could be a factor in the reduced barren percentage, which over the years has halved from 5% to 2.5%. He does nevertheless still have large numbers of triplets with most of last year's 160-170 sets having the third lamb reared on a milk machine.

The business is nevertheless fortunate in that both partners are keen to invest and improve the overall productivity of all enterprises which includes up to 450 acres of arable and a 70-cow suckler herd, although Neil is involved in the sheep section only.

With both partners making money, Mr Withers and the Wester Ulston Sheep have also been able to invest in more ground. Initially when the partnership was formed it was based on 450acres of grassland acres but over the years that has increased to 900acres, some of which has been improved from extremely rough ground through regular reseeding and lime when required.

It's not been easy though when Neil does the bulk of the work himself and is also away shearing during the summer for additional income. But, it's a life he wouldn't change for the world especially when Lorraine and the family enjoy helping out.

"When we first started, I didn't have a penny to my name, but it is great to now have a regular income coming in from various sheep enterprises and to actually have capital to invest," concluded Neil who admits that lambing will always be favourite time of year.

FARM facts:

Share farming: Wester Ulston Sheep partnership made up of Steven Withers who owns the bulk of the land (750acres at Wester Ulston and 500 acres at Upper Hundalee and Neil Sandilands, who does the work and owns 50% of 200acres at Upper Hundalee). A further 450 acres are leased on a seasonal basis.

Sheep numbers: 600 Lairg-type Cheviot ewes, 1000 Cheviot Mules, 300 Beltex cross Cheviot Mules; 60 pure-bred Texels ewes that run alongside smaller flocks of pedigree Beltex and Suffolks, to breed rams to use as lambs and sell the following year as shearlings at Kelso and privately.

Lambing: All inside from March 1 through to the end of April.

West Ulston Sheep partnership: Profits initially established at 60:40 in Stephen Withers' favour which has since increased to 50:50 as both parties took confidence in their relationship and the new business structure and performance. Capital is now a 50:50 split between Stephen and Neil. Stephen is the sole beneficiary of the Basic Farm Payment and in return pays for contractors to make sufficient silage for the sheep flock. The partnership pays for up to 60t of Nitrogen fertiliser and in return, Neil has free access to straw made on farm.

ONTHE spot:

Best investment? "Time – take time to think about the best way to do things and make things work better and a Combi Clamp, which has revolutionised sheep handling on the farm with up to 600 sheep – all of which are EID tagged – able to go through the fank in an hour."

Best advice? "Work smarter not harder. Think about what would make things easier for the business which is where the idea came for the coral – It saves time travelling from field to field with fresh bales of silage and also saves damaging the soils in wet weather."

Biggest achievement? "Being nominated for Sheep Farmer of the Year and becoming a finalist and winning the reserve supreme inter-breed sheep honours at Kelso Show in 2018, with the home-bred Beltex gimmer, Alewater Cosmic."

What do you miss most as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns? "The shows, especially the local ones such as Kelso and Pennymuir, but also the Highland Show, which although I've never exhibited sheep there, is on my bucket list."