Hill sheep farming is often perceived as traditional and even backward. Add to that the poor returns, if any, and it’s easy to understand why so many of Scotland’s hill ground has become bereft not only of sheep and cattle, but also the birdlife that goes hand in hand with such countryside.

Hill farms always bear the brunt of the elements too, which coupled with the poor terrain and increased predators, means making ends meet in a good year difficult enough without having to face last year’s prolonged cold winter and brutal Beast from the East.

The huge increase in prices of feed, fertiliser and forages always hit such farmers hardest too, so, it comes as no surprise that increasing amounts of hill ground is being planted.

And yet, despite the difficulties, Aberdeenshire’s This Farming Life TV celebrities, Johnny Irvine his wife Liz and son Raymond, are determined to keep going despite having to face some of the worst weather Mother Nature throws at them.

The duo farm some 4000plus hill acres on the Crown Estate’s Inverlochy and Mains of Inverourie farms, ranging from 900-2500ft above sea-level in the Cairngorms – just behind Scotland’s infamous snow-bound Cockbridge to Tomintoul road. Winters are a long drawn out affair on these two neighbouring units which have just 300acres of in-bye ground between them. Quite often there is little if any summer, with last year’s long, dry warm conditions very much the exception.

“It does get harder and harder every year especially when ex-farm prices have remained pretty much the same over the past 15 years while input costs have soared,” said Johnny. “Store lamb values have hovered around the £50 per head mark for the past 15-20 years.

“We were fortunate last year in that we were not too badly hit by the Beast from The East as we don’t start lambing until mid April. If anything, the long dry summer caused more problems in that we couldn’t grow enough forage and had to buy in addition crop to feed the cows for part of the summer and the winter.”

In all, the two farms are home to 600 mainly north-type Blackface ewes of which half are bred pure to breed replacements, with the remainder crossed to a Texel with the resultant progeny sold as stores.

The family also run 150 Texel cross and Mule ewes which again are all tupped to a Texel with all lambs sold as stores either through Huntly or Thainstone, in September. All are lambed mid April over a three-week period.

Admittedly, Texel cross lambs do make £10-£15 per head more than the pure Blackie lambs, but the introduction of the Scottish Upland Sheep Support Scheme or Ewe Hogg Scheme does help to balance up the books.

Yet, even with the scheme, margins remain extremely tight especially when scanned lambing percentages in the hill flock rarely rise above the 120% mark.

But then, there is not the in-bye ground for a higher lamb crop when the cross ewe flock regularly produces scanning figures of 180%.

According to the Irvines, it’s only really the Blackie that can survive the harsh, upland conditions here too.

“There is nothing to beat the Blackie for hardiness and mothering ability when it comes to lambing here,” said Raymond. “We’ll skin a dead lamb and twin on another outside and the ewe will take the new lamb no bother. Blackies are the best mothers there are,” he added pointing out that stock tups are bought at Stirling and Dingwall.

Most years, the team look to buy big, naturally fleshing tups and in the past have purchased from Allanfauld, Glenrinnes and Hillhead of Morinsh. Texels are bought at Thainstone and Dingwall.

Blackie lambs are pretty much indestructible too once they’ve had their first ‘sook,’ according to the boys who added that bitterly cold, dry snow doesn’t affect them. The worst weather for them is wet, slushy snow.

Feed costs are high too when the ground is so poor and spring is so late. Most years, hay is supplied from New Year onwards, with ewe rolls introduced after scanning mid-February, to all in-lamb ewes.

All ewes are nevertheless lambed in the fields where there is slightly more shelter from trees and woods. Single lambs and their mothers are put back to the hill about a week?? after lambing, while twin-born lambs and their mothers are kept in and are often have to be fed right through until the end of May depending on grass growth.

They do have to go to the hill eventually though with all Blackface ewes and their lambs having to fend for themselves on the grouse moors after clipping, while the cross ewes and their lambs are kept in the fields.

There are nevertheless some advantages to farming on some of Scotland’s highest, bleakest hill ground which is better known for its shooting potential than its agricultural production.

With most of the sheep farmed extensively, worms are rarely a problem, with lambs only dozed twice – at marking and clipping. Located on the dry north east of the country means that they only dose for fluke twice a year – pre tupping and pre-lambing when they also give a selenium, cobalt and iodine mineral drench.

With the farms renowned for their grouse, there are nevertheless plenty of gamekeepers to take care of predators and vermin, although black backed gulls can prove an issue at lambing time.

Tick also cause problems, with ewes requiring a louping ill vaccine pre lambing while all lambs are sprayed with crovect before they go to the hill and every six to eight weeks thereafter.

It’s not an easy life hill farming, but the family’s well-known 40-cow Inverlochy Charolais herd which regularly produces show and sale winners and 60 head of commercial cattle, does help to make up for it.

Add to that Raymond, his daughter Adele and partner, Jenni McAllister’s extremely popular Highland Valais Blacknose flock, and there’s never a dull moment at Inverlochy or Mains of Inverourie and even moreo since their charismatic sheep hit the TV screens last month.

Raymond added: “Originally, Jenni and I went over to Switzerland in 2014 to see if we could bring in a few to breed as an interest outwith the farm, but it’s developed into a business since we started putting them on Facebook. There is huge interest in the breed and since This Farming Life, it’s gone crazy – we’ve got more than 62,000 followers from all over the world.”

Initially, the couple imported 13 head of Valais Blacknose in 2014 from some of the top breeders in the country, with the flock now comprising 40 breeding females plus youngsters.

Such is the demand for the sheep, which is still very much perceived as a novelty breed in the UK, that most of the progeny is sold privately to establish new flocks.

With the number of breeders and Valais Blacknose sheep rising year on year, Raymond and Jenni also assisted in the establishment of the Valais Blacknose Sheep Society of the UK, which now boasts 70 members and rising. Furthermore, they also helped organise the first annual breed sale at Carlisle in 2016, while also producing the highest priced tup at auction at 10,000gns.

Valais Blacknose are not just making their presence felt in this country though, they’re also proving extremely popular in New Zealand, Norway and the US. As it is, the couple has already exported embryos to the former and 900 straws of semen have been sent to the US as the Americans are unable to import embryos.

“There is huge interest in Valais Blacknose in America, with the sheep very much seen as novelty animals that attract good four-figure prices. The Americans can’t get enough of them and the only way they can breed their own is by breeding them up by AI’ing frozen semen from an ARR/ARR genotyped Valais Blacknose rams into Blackface ewes – the closest resembling breed,” said Raymond.

This Swiss hill breed which is capable of lambing three times in two years, also produces wool and meat which has the potential to be a lot more valuable than other hill sheep breeds. Clipped twice a year in March and the end of September, Valais Blacknose wool is proving a superior product for felting.

Admittedly, there is little if any meat available from the breed when everything to date from the flock has been sold for breeding. However, the small amount of Valais Blacknose lamb the couple has tasted has been completely different to any other sheepmeat.

“Valais Blacknose put on much the same weight as continental-type lambs but they don’t have the same fat cover or the same lamb smell when the meat is cooked. It’s a very lean meat with a great taste,” said Raymond.

More importantly, the sheep themselves are proving easy to work with, even though they are housed in a polytunnel at lambing time, with the ewes being “great mothers.”

“They are a lot quieter to work with than Blackies and they’re easy lambed, with the lambs having plenty of vigour. They also seem to last forever as we’ve got one nine-year-old ewe and she’s got all her teeth,” said Raymond.

Who knows, maybe Valais Blacknose sheep could help reverse the downturn in hill sheep farming and the fortunes of some our hardest working farmers. Just watch this space …