Few breeds have increased in popularity as much as the Zwartbles in recent years, with this striking big black and white sheep often attracting some of the biggest numbers at shows, and handsome prices to go with it at society sales.

Add to that their ease of lambing and management attributes and it comes as no surprise that this Dutch-bred ovine is appealing to all types of farmers and those outwith agriculture.

But while the Zwartbles is well known for its maternal characteristics as a pedigree and a commercial breeding female, it is the style and elegance that first attracted Dumfries-shire dairy farmer’s wife, Joyce Millar, who owns the Joyfield flock in partnership with her son Neil.

“We first saw them at a rare breeds sale at Carlisle and they immediately struck us as being a flashy sheep with plenty of style,” said Joyce speaking after winning the Zwartbles championship for a second consecutive year at Ingliston.

“I like to see good commercial sheep but in my heart I will always look for good quality pedigree females. We’d always look to breed quality females first and if we can breed a good tup, it’s a bonus.

“We like Zwartbles because of their style, flash, big ears and attitude. Females with that all important ‘look at me’ appeal. We like to breed the easier fleshing type with a bit of body, power, and clean well defined colours.

No stranger to the pedigree world, Joyce and her late father, Jimmy McKenzie from Lockerbie, who bred many breeds of sheep throughout his life and was also a former Bleu Du Maine inspector having travelled to France to select the first imported Bleus into the UK, were always big sheep fans.

Joyce also kept a few Suffolks on the farm at Woodhousehill, Lockerbie, and her father’s small pedigree flock of Texels, which they would show at their local Dumfries Show. Regular prize winners, especially amongst the Suffolks, they've also previously landed the coveted inter-breed honours at this big sheep event and twice in three years.

However, when the 500-acre farm which is owned by Andrew and Joyce Millar, daughter Alison and son Neil, was subjected to a contiguous foot and mouth cull in 2001, they lost all the sheep.

It wasn’t long however, before Joyce and her father went looking for a few more and after seeing Zwartbles at a rare breed sale at Carlisle, in 2003, Joyce was smitten.

“We just thought Zwartbles were flashy sheep and they were different,” she said.

A trip down to Worcester in October 2003, then saw her father buy an in-lamb gimmer from Peter Coombs’ Mendip flock as a foundation female for her Joyfield flock.

Unfortunately, she was found not to be in lamb, but Mr Coombs replaced the gimmer with her twin sister which gave birth to two tup lambs, which went on to top the male section of the sale the next year at 920gns, with the other selling at 600gns.

Now totally enamoured by the breed, Joyce and her father then ventured back down to the society sale at Worcester and bought three females from the Berrington, Abbotsgrove and Stonehill flocks and forked out a further 1500gns for a Summerwood ram to tup them.

It’s females from Olwen and Cain Hughes-Owen’s Cynefin flock from Anglesey, that have stepped them up a gear though, with their first Highland Show champion, Joyfield Emperor, a son of Joyfield Sir Benson, bred from Joyfield Tash, tracing back to Cynefin genetics.

And, this year’s winner, Joyfield Havana is bred from a different Cynefin female and one which is regularly flushed and having bred females to 2000gns and 1800gns twice, sired by Millburn Sam – the flock's most influential purchased ram.

“Sam was the best breeding tup we’ve ever used and sadly we lost him earlier this year at 11 years of age. He’s irreplaceable as he worked for 10 years and was perfect on his feet and legs and he had a great mouth until the day he died. Sam has really left his mark on the flock with his daughters being really feminine, fleshy and stylish females. Just the type of females we look to breed," said Joyce.

Having previously kept up to 25 pedigree Zwartbles females, the family are now concentrating on 15 of the best from their flock, with the lower end being used for ET work. A select few are flushed every year through Dan Fawcett, Penrith.

“Zwartbles don’t breed true to type, so it has to be a really good female before we’d ever think about flushing,” said Neil, who in recent years has only flushed the best.

The remainder are all artificially inseminated for lambing within a matter of days inside, in January.

Zwartbles also make for great recipients, or commercial breeding females when crossed to a Texel.

“Despite Zwartbles being known for their placid nature I personally like them to have a bit of spark and character, and like my females to have, silky hair, big powerful heads with a nose end, with big cocky lugs! Zwartbles are easy lambed. The ewes milk well and the lambs have plenty vigour and are up and ‘sooked’ in no time,” said Neil.

“They’re easy twinned too, should you have to marry up a triplet lamb onto a ewe that is rearing a single.”

With the farm home to 120 Holstein Friesian cows and all dairy females retained for breeding while beef calves are finished alongside a further 60 bought in store cattle every year, there is little scope for a commercial ewe flock. However, having previously run a few Texel cross Zwartbles, both Joyce and Neil remain convinced the breed has much to offer commercial producers.

“A Texel cross Zwartbles makes a really good breeding female showing more maternal characteristics and milk than a pure Texel, and, the lambs can be finished off grass,” said Neil.

With Joyce’s father instrumental in Neil’s ability and enthusiasm for breeding pedigree sheep, small flocks of Bleu Du Maine, Millenium Bleus and Badgerfaced Texels have also been introduced in recent years.

Five years ago, Neil bought his foundation Bleu female at a breed sale at Carlisle, in a gimmer from William Baillie's Calla flock, which was tupped with the flock's top breeding ram, Maximum Obama.

Last year Neil also bought the top priced female at the late Percy Tait’s Perdi dispersal sale at Worcester, forking out 6000gns for Perdi Rachelle which won her class at several events in 2019, and is a grand-daughter of the flock’s successful show ewe, Perdi Mona Lisa. The Joyfield flock now stands at six pedigree Bleus bred pure, with the remaining four crossed to a Beltex to breed Millennium Bleus.

Add to that a further eight pedigree Badgerfaced Texel females, which have been acquired through various purchases from Paul and Christine Tippetts’ Hackney flock; Stuart Wood’s Woodies flock from Aberdeenshire and another two from Rhys Francis Pistyll, and the Millars have more than enough to keep them going out with the dairy and finishing enterprise.

They do however, plan to exhibit their sheep more in years to come and while they have only been showing at the Highland for the last five years, the sheep have been entered for the Great Yorkshire for the first time this year.

But, in contrast to many who desperately want to hit the headlines breeding high priced rams, it is very much superior quality females in all breeds that the Millars are concentrating on.

“There is no point in selling sheep of any breed you wouldn’t look to breed from yourself. We want people to come back and be confident in buying sheep from us again,” concluded Joyce, who hopes the business will have a select few forward for next month’s breed sale at Carlisle.

FARM facts:

Farm size: 500acres comprising of Woodhousehill, Woodhouse Mains Netherwoodhouse and land at Redkirk, five miles from home, near the Solway shore.

Family business: Andrew and Joyce Millar, daughter Alison and son Neil with full-time assistance from Dave and Rob who have been with the Millar family for a combined 75 years.

Farm enterprises: 120-dairy cows , finishing store cattle, store lambs over the winter and small pedigree flocks of Zwartbles, Bleu Du Maines and Badgerfaced Texels.

Feeds: Three cuts of silage are taken, with wheat and barley grown for feeding store and dairy cattle, and straw for bedding.

ON THE spot

Best investment? "Millburn Sam without a doubt."

Best advice? "Buy quality, not quantity and like what you breed and breed what you like."

Biggest achievement? "Royal Highland Show 2019 – winning the overall championship in the Zwartbles section with Joyfield Emperor, having lifted the reserve overall in the Bleu Du Maines the previous day for Neil's first year exhibiting Bleus with Aviemore Ruby.

Where would you like to be in 2030? "Happy and healthy! We aim to be as self sufficient as possible, not getting too big, and being able to manage most jobs ourselves. We're currently installing a couple of robotic milkers so we also hope to have that well established and breeding milky dairy heifers and good quality flashy female sheep of all breeds, and you never know what else may come around the corner!"

What have you missed most over the past 16 months? "Not much really, there is always of plenty work to do."