Producing top end Scotch Mules for their hardiness and milking ability that enables them to rear a pair of lambs to 44kg off grass is the main priority for the Thornborrow family, whose ever expanding sheep enterprise is based at Easter Dawyck, Peebles.

Very much a family business, the father and son duo of Malcolm and Gary, along with their respective partners, Shona and Marian, aim to be as self sufficient as possible. Malcolm’s older son, Craig, although spending the majority of his time at Nunnerie, is also very much involved and helps out when he can, with his wife, Helen, tackles the farm accounts. Murray Purves is alway on hand to help at Dawyck, the team certainly feel they’d have been stuck without him over the years. 

The Scottish Farmer:

The farm is part of Dawyck Estates owned by the Balfour family and sits at 700ft above sea level, consisting of 500 acres of in-by land and 550 acres of heather hill. Running 710 ewes of their own and a small suckler herd of 20 cows along with 300 Scotch Mules and 200 Blackface hill ewes which they manage for the estate. 
A further 290 acres of summer and seasonal grazing is taken for stock from all of their sheep enterprises, along with winter grazing for 1380 hoggs.
Having a close working relationship with their landlord, Robert Balfour, allows all of the tractor work to be done jointly throughout the year, including 120 acres of silage between them, which is analysed before feeding.

The family’s own flock at Easter Dawyck consists of 440 Blackface ewes, 230 Scotch Mules and 40 pedigree crossing Bluefaced Leicesters

The Blackies are put to the Blue to produce the Scotch Mules which Malcolm grew very fond on when moving up to Scotland from Yorkshire in 1978 – Craig and Gary have had the same passion from an early age.
Blackface ewes are tupped naturally in early November, usually hitting a scanning percentage of 170%, with replacements brought in, mainly coming from various hill farms also involved in the enterprise, with others purchased in as younger sheep privately, or at auction.

Scotch Mule ewe lambs predominantly go to St Boswells and United Auctions, Stirling, with the aim of selling 240 annually, with a few exchanged privately too.
The family also hold the Scotch Mule record for a pen of 51 ewe lambs when the champion pen sold for £210 at St Boswells last year to regular buyers, Jimmy and Graeme Sinclair, at Crookston, Heriot.

“It is also always very pleasing to see them doing well with their fat lambs at the prime sales throughout the backend. We have regular buyers that come back annually at all the markets, which we like to see, with Hugh and Tess Gibson, of Heavyside Farm, having bought for the past 15 years,” said Malcolm, with smaller types being kept for replacements, or sold as gimmers.

The Scottish Farmer:

The home-bred Scotch Mule flock are put to Texel and Suffolk terminal sires from mid/late October to produce prime lambs. These usually scan out at 206%. All ewes are fed silage and Crystalyx blocks from Christmas onwards, with ewe rolls used six weeks prior to lambing for the twins and triplets.

Various concentrates from the Davidsons Animal Feeds range are used throughout the year, including the Pearl and Reiver nut for lambs pre sales and with the Ewelac and Super ewe rolls used for the ewes.

“Their feed does an excellent job for us, with a fantastic service provided by them all round,” said Malcolm.

Lambing is one of the busiest times of the year on the farm. The Leicester flock is followed by all the single and triplet bearing ewes lambed inside, with as many singles twinned up to pairs as possible. 

The installation of lambing cameras has been a real game changer for them, which are used for additional security around the farms the rest of the year. “It’s important to use the technology available now in all aspects of farming to maximise our business to its full potential,” commented Gary

“It’s the versatility of the Scotch Mule that really suits our farming system and allows us a staggered lambing, with the breed also being a great recipient ewe for the Leicester embryos in early March right through to lambing all twin scanned ewes outdoors including the estate ewes in April,” said Malcolm.

Suffolk and Texel sires are used as they have found they produce the best prime lamb grades and combine well with the Scotch Mule. All progeny, including the Mule wedders, are sold off grass to Woodhead Brothers, Turriff, on behalf of Morrisons, averaging around 20.6kg deadweight.

The first draw is usually taken at the end of June and fortnightly thereafter producing mainly U and R grades. The latter end are finished on feed. 

Gary added: “After trying small numbers of other cross breeds along the way, the Scotch Mule outperforms them for hardiness and milking ability to rear a pair of lambs to 44kg off grass on our system.” 

The Scottish Farmer:

The flock of Bluefaced Leicesters began when Malcolm first started buying them over 40 years ago when working at Fruid Farm, producing his own Mules on rented ground at Menzion Farm, Tweedsmuir, before taking the tenancy at Easter Dawyck some 12 years ago. 

With Craig and Gary enthusiastic about the breed, the small flock of Leicesters were registered. Shortly after, Alistair MacArthur kindly gave Craig the Leicesters from Nunnerie, which joined the Dawyck flock and produced a great foundation for the family to build on.

After buying numerous stock tups to improve the flock, it was the purchase of a Cottage female at Carlisle for £900, in 2013, that provided the back bone of the current flock.

“Her success in the show ring over the years was pleasing but her ability to click with every tup we put her to was a massive boost for us and most importantly producing excellent pure-bred Blues with good crossing bloodlines in them! She is the dam of two of our best breeding ewes, G30 and H38 Dawyck, with more than £100,000 of progeny sold out of her and her daughters to-date,” said Craig. 

The joint purchase of the £23,000 H1 Carryhouse tup in 2015 also had a big influence in moving the flock forward. “He produced tremendous Mules and Leicester with a large proportion of our flock going back to his bloodlines. He has really made our flock what it is today,” said Gary, adding that a small amount of semen is still used throughout the flock every year.

At present, the main stock tups are a £30,000 M1 Hewgill and £7000 M2 Smearsett, both were purchased jointly at Hawes in 2019, and their offspring is some of the best they’ve had.

Malcolm added: “The 2020 tup purchases are also looking promising at the moment. Our main focus when breeding Leicesters is the quality of the Mules. If they don’t breed good Mules, we don’t use them again. That, along with well-structured Leicester lambs with good skins and a bit of fashionable colour, is what we aim to breed. However, finding tups to suit both jobs isn’t always easy.”

The Scottish Farmer:

The 40-ewe Blue flock is artificially inseminated on October 16, slightly later than most breeders, but it worked well at Dawyck with increased conception rates and scanning percentages on average of around 235%.

A small selection of the best females are flushed for embryos through AB Europe. The top pick of females are retained for breeding, while surplus females are sold privately or at in-lamb sales in January.

Backed by the best of breeding the team aim to sell 30 tup lambs each year, with the remainder being used as lambs on the majority of their Blackface flock before being sold as shearlings at Kelso Ram Sales.

“We put a lot of confidence in our home-bred lambs for crossing at Dawyck, it’s important to know how they are going to cross and is extremely beneficial when selling them the following year,” said Marian.

The Dawyck team enjoyed their best results last year, selling a tup lamb – a son of the M1 Hewgill – for £10,000 to Hugh Henry and Steven Wilson, of the StarBog and Deerfin flocks. Previous bests have been tup lambs at £7500 and £7000, at Hawes and Carlisle markets.

The Scottish Farmer:

Creating a shop window for the sale ring is through self-promotion at various shows throughout the country and the Thornborrow family have bagged various championships and inter-breeds with both their Bluefaced Leicesters and Scotch Mules, including at the Royal Highland Show.

In 2017, they secured the Blue supreme at the Highland with G30 Dawyck, a two-crop ewe by a £16,000 F10 Penhill, while her daughter scooped the reserve female title the same day. Later, their champion joined forces with the top ram to win the inter-breed pairs.

Health schemes, grassland management and the correct feed are main priorities to producing top-quality stock at Easter Dawyck. With at-least one field of young grass sowed every year, it’s key to the overall performance of the stock. 

The team aim to carry out a strict health plan for all the stock that they manage. Pre-tupping fluke, worm and mineral drenches, followed by a Trodax fluke injection occurs in late January and a Cydectin LA injection prior to lambing, with the hoggs on a similar system.

“The LA injection has proven very successful for us, with the ewes and lambs being cleaner and fitter than previously through the summer. It has also reduced the summer worm doses which has been both cost and time efficient,” said Gary. Hill lambs only receive one worm dose during the summer, with in-bye lambs also receiving a dose then an additional worm dose if required.

Clik Extra is used for prevention of blow flies. It is costly, but with its long cover it gives them piece of mind especially with stock away from home.
“We continue with the same health plan for four to five years before rotating to reduce resistance,” said Malcolm, with all stock being scab dipped annually and on the Heptavac P System as well as the ewes at Easter Dawyck being vaccinated against enzootic abortion and the stock lung scanned for OPA.

Away from Dawyck, Gary oversees 2520 ewes across 9400 acres on various hill farms, with daily help from Gordon MacIntyre for the last three years. “Gordon has been a great help and has greatly improved our efficiency on the hill farms, with the rest of the Dawyck team helping at busy times of the year,” he said.

Some 1775 of those ewes are contract farmed at Fruid, which Gary is now into a second contract agreement with Robert Graham – keeping up the family tradition having had three generations working there for more than 50 years. Mr Graham is still very much involved in what is going on at Fruid, which Gary feels has helped create a good relationship between them over the last 16 years.

Fruid’s hills runs from 1100ft to 2650ft above sea level with no in-bye ground, stocking 1735 Blackface ewes and only 40 Cheviot ewes still remaining as the other 320 Cheviots were crossed out to the Blackface in the 1990s.

If that doesn’t keep them busy enough, they run a further 745 Blackie hill ewes on their own hill, plus rented acres. The 2520 hill ewes scanned at 123% this year and summer grazing is taken for the majority of the twins, which is proving beneficial for the flock.

Ewes are put to the tup late November with 18 tonnes of High Energy Rumevite blocks provided from February onwards. No additional feeding or hay is given, as the challenging hill terrain is unsuitable for machinery. 

All ewe lambs are retained and wintered away from home but in their own hefts, with stock being drawn on their return in April. Surplus ewe lambs are used for replacements at Dawyck and sold privately to regular customers.

Most of the male progeny are sold as lightweight lambs straight off their mothers through Lawrie and Symington. The lambs which are left entire weigh up to 44kg and averaged 36kg last year. They feel this is the best way to market the male lambs currently and with minimum inputs.

Draft ewes are sold privately through Lanark with the ambition to take a couple of pens to the sale ring in years to come.

Outwith trying to produce 15-20 home-bred tups a year, Gary purchases 12-15 new Blackface stock tups annually at UA, Stirling and Lawrie and Symington, Lanark.

“This is a difficult job, but we always try to buy tups with character but most importantly good confirmation which I feel is one of the most important attributes essential for a Blackface ewe to survive the harsh winter on our hills and at Fruid.

“The Blackface is the best hill ewe for rearing a quality lamb from a challenging hill in my opinion. Any lamb reared on these Scottish hills is, for me, one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly foods available in the world.

“Along with the importance of the sheep stratification system, I feel we should be doing more to promote it as an industry on a whole,” concluded Gary.

With various enterprises across the business there is always something on the go for the family and undertaking all of their own shearing, as well as friends and neighbours, is just another challenge for them, shearing 7000 sheep annually.

Working well together as team to ensure they still find plenty of time for socialising and having a laugh along the way, there is a strong future ahead for Easter Dawyck.

The Scottish Farmer:

Farm Facts

Involvement: Malcolm and his son, Gary with their partners, Shona and Marian respectively.

Rest of the team: Craig and Helen Thornborrow, Murray Purves and Gordon Macintyre.

Farm: Dawyck Estates, owned by the Balfour family.

Acreage: Dawyck runs 1050 acres sitting at 700ft above sea level. Hill farms run 9400acres running to 2650ft.

Livestock: Dawyck: 710 ewes and 20 suckler cows of their own and the estate run 500 ewes. Various hill farms: 745 ewes. Fruid Farm: 1775 ewes.

On The Spot

Biggest achievement: Selling a pen of 51 Mule ewe lambs for £210.

Best investment?: The purchase of the H1 Carryhouse tup and an old clipping trailer 12 years ago for £40 which is still in use today.

Where do we see yourself in 2031? Similar to where we are now but with improved stock and machinery. Having less rented ground away from Easter Dawyck and more land of our own if the opportunity arises.

Best advice: “Always work with young stock and grass” and “an hour in the morning is worth two in the afternoon.”

Best assets: Two new knees for Malcolm but most importantly having a good team working together.

If they’re is one thing you could change, what would it be?

We’ve two! Having more of a say for the price of our produce! And a better understanding within society of UK farming, including the massive amount we do willingly to benefit the environment, conservation and Wildlife which we seem to get bad press for instead.