Utilising the best of the hill ground to produce strong Blackface and Scotch Mule lambs that can be finished on grass or forage might be a traditional form of farming, but it works for the Shearer family of Hillhead of Morinsh, Glenlivet.

“The Blackface breed has a real hardy nature that no other hill breed can compete with. We have always worked with the north type and introduced south ewes in 2007. Both have their unique and valid traits and work well with our system,” said John, who is the third generation to farm here, alongside his two sons, Gavin and Neil.

The family run 430 ewes, of which 270 ewes are split between north and south types and bred pure, with the remainder tupped with a Bluefaced Leicester to breed Mule lambs.

Living in one of the harshest, remotest parts of Scotland, both the north and south types winter well outside, with the early part of this year proving tougher than most due to the snow and frost.

Such was the bad weather this year, that the farm had snow on the ground from Boxing Day through to mid February.

“It has been the worst snow I have seen in 40 years, it was a lot harder to cope with than the Beast from the East,” said John.

“The only way we could get silage and blocks to the ewes was by digging roads daily with the tracked digger. We’re just thankful the ewes have come through it in good condition and scanned at 165% – the best we’ve had for a number of years.”

Pre-tupping, ewes are given a mineral drench along with a wormer to ensure optimum health. After scanning, twins and triplets are fed 19% protein ewe rolls along with Crystalyx blocks, while the singles have access to silage and blocks only.

The ewes receive another mineral drench, wormer, and pour-on for lice, and their Heptavac P jab, four to six weeks pre lambing. They are also run through the foot bath at regular intervals to keep foot problems at a minimum.

Lambing is due to take place in a just few weeks. It will hopefully be a bit easier this year too, with the the installation of a 100ft x 30ft polytunnel, being erected by Peter Milton of Keith, and due to be up and running by the end of this month.

“For lambing it will mean we can bring any ewes and lambs in that need extra care and attention. It will be a multi-purpose building which can be used throughout the year for various purposes,” commented John.

The family grow around 15 acres of forage rape annually, finishing the Blackface wedder lambs at weights of 45-48kg. Mule wedders are mostly finished off grass at similar weights. Mule ewe lambs are sold through Huntly Auction Mart selling to a top of £120 last September, whilst the Blackface ewe lambs are kept as replacements for the flock.

Getting the females right is half the equation, but the rams need to be there too and choosing the stock tups is one of the most important aspects of being a sheep farmer.

Whilst north type stock Blackie rams are bought in Ballymena and Stirling, south type tups are acquired at Stirling, Dalmally or Lanark, and outwith last year’s Covid restrictions, these are usually a really sociable few days for the team!

“We look for tups with a good carcase, a tight skin, as well as a breedy head, open cast of horn and nice hair. We also look to breed from tups with that notable Blackface breed character,” said John.

Bluefaced Leicester stock tups are purchased annually at Huntly Auction Market looking for that ‘cocky lugs, with a long neck and plenty of length’.

Last year at Ballymena the team purchased the top priced lamb from Thomas Harkin at 8500gns jointly with the Baillies of Calla. At Stirling, a £3000 Achdregnie was purchased jointly with Phil Stewart, Bomakelloch, and at the Dalmally sale a £1000 Dalchirla shearling was bought.

One ram that has particularly stamped his mark on the north ewes by breeding a lot of exceptional females, was a 1000gns Martin Conway tup purchased in 2014 at Ballymena. Other notable sires bought in recent years which have left a stamp on the flock include a 3500gns Andy Hunter, 7800gns Billy Grant, £7000 Achdregnie and the £7000 Hillhead Of Morinsh tup sold in 2013, that was bought back privately in 2017.

In 2018, this tup sired a £5000 lamb sold to Tom and Mairi Paterson and son Robert of Craigneich, which in turn sired the £22,000 and £11,000 Craigneich shearlings sold at Stirling last year.

The most influential stock ram among the Southies to date is a £2400 Allanfauld, that was bought at Stirling in 2016. He bred the team’s £4000 shearling in 2018 at Stirling.

Another from the same home, Allanfauld Bullseye and a £3800 Elmscleugh have both bred extremely well for the flock.

On the flip side, the Shearers normally sell 12 North-type shearlings and six lambs, and 20 South-type shearlings and five lambs annually at Stirling, Dingwall, Fort William, along with some privately.

The top price to date for the family came in 2008 when a North-type shearling bred from a Mark Smyth tup realised £10,000 at the final Blackie tup sale at the old Perth Auction Market.

More recently, the boys topped the lamb trade at £8000 in Stirling just last year, with a son of a £3800 Achdregnie, selling to Cadogan Estates, Auchnacloich outfit, managed by Archie MacKinnon.

Breeding for sale ring success is the ultimate goal and the family is doing their best to enhance their flock for the next generation of Shearers – Gavin and Louise’s two children, Alex (14) and Ellie (10) who have already shown a strong interest in the farm.

“We are constantly trying to improve our stock and land. We’ll reseed around 20 acres every year as well as soil testing. Spreading lime has become a crucial part of soil health – if the pH is not right there is no point in chucking on the fertiliser.

“Better soils benefits the whole farm system, helping to grow better quality stock which is especially important when we are trying to finish more lambs off grass,” said John.

“However, the future of the industry is a different story… I wish I had a crystal ball! The government is throwing money at forestry like there is no tomorrow, which is taking away precious hill ground for sheep – you can’t feed a nation on trees and we all need to continue to support farmers.

“The world population is growing, and we have a lot of mouths to feed, farmers are not appreciated enough. We have to be open to change and have to hope that a quality product will always sell,” concluded John.

Farm facts

History: Hillhead of Morinsh was purchased in 1955 by John's grandfather, the late John McIrvine and is now run by the third generation.

Who is all involved: John and Anne and their two sons, Gavin, who works at the local distillery, Tamnavulin, and Neil who undertakes groundwork's and landscape management. Along with, Gavin’s wife, Louise and two children, Alex (14) and Ellie (10).

Livestock: 430 North and South Blackface ewes.

Acreage: 330 acres consisting of 260 acres of ploughable land, and 70 acres of rough grazing with access to 2500 acres of hill ground rising from 1000ft to 2000ft above sea level.

On the spot

Best investment: "A Kubota tracked digger, with the winter we have had we have needed it, without it we wouldn’t have been able to access our sheep for days."

Best advice: "Buy the best tups you can afford."

Biggest achievement: "Tup sales, if you get a good price it makes the whole year a good one. 2018 was our best year when we sold 17 tups at Stirling to average £1770."

Favourite restaurant: "Clockhouse restaurant in Tomintoul."

Where do you see yourself in 2031?: "Taking a back seat and watching the family continue to be successful with the great blackie breed!"