There can be no doubting the zest farmers have for individual breeds and Blackface sheep breeders are probably more passionate than most, but then they are the ones who year in year out work with Blackies that live and thrive in some of the most extreme climates and terrains.
When you’ve been out on those rough rugged moors or lambing parks to see at first hand individual lambs born in the wettest, coldest of conditions, flockmasters build a real affinity not only with the breed but also individual females. 
And when they’ve kept a watchful eye over those lambs at every gathering to see them come in bigger and stronger each time, it is of little wonder that tension mounts at this time of year for the big sales.
Admittedly, it is the big five-figure priced rams that often dominate the breed, but it’s the Blackface female that takes pride of place on most hill farms and particularly at Whelphill and Hartside Farms, where Malcolm Coubrough, runs just short of 2200 Blackie ewes. 
Here, Malcolm and his wife, Audrey and their young family of Emily (11) and Charlie (9), farm 3500 acres at Whelphill, Crawford and a further 2000acres at Hartside, Tintoside and Wyndales, at Lamington, Biggar.
With the Blackface sheep breed having supported three generations of Coubroughs and their families and those working on the farms, there is never going to be anything other than Blackies on these farms either, according to Malcolm.
“There is nothing better than being out on the hills and seeing a Blackie ewe and her lambs live and thrive in some of the harshest parts of the country,” said Malcolm, who works alongside shepherds, Gordon MacDougal and Ross Henderson, with his parents, Malcolm and Ella Coubrough, still involved with the day to day running of the farms.
“Blackface sheep breeding is either in you or it’s not and I was hooked as a wee lad after following Dad at lambing time round the hill at Whelphill,” added Malcolm who also loves the thrill of the tup sales having watched his father sell a first prize winner at £3000 many years ago at the old market at Lanark.
However, while he is the first to admit, the buzz of the tup sales is a  huge part of Blackface sheep breeding, he is the first to admit, he’s a ‘ladies man’ when it comes to the sheep.
“We need as many lambs as possible to sell off the farm to make the sector viable and that is where the Blackie ewe comes into her own as she is so productive, and as a result, the ewe lambs are always well sought after.
“Our pure-bred Blackie flock will produce weaning percentages of 130% at sale time while the Blackies crossed to a Blue produce lamb crops of 135% off the farm.
“We can sell pure Blackie ewe lambs straight off the hill having had two worm doses and their Ovivac P vaccine only which this year hit a top of £100 to average £84 for 462.”
With growing demand for the breed in Aberdeenshire and Ireland, draft ewes and in-lamb females also sell well. This year, the farm also produced a personal best at the in-lamb sale at Lanark in February when Malcolm’s former Biggar Show champion sold for 5000gns.
Draft ewes from Whelphill and Hartside regularly make the grade too having sold to £340 in 2015 and £220 last year, but then, his females are also renowned for breeding top Scotch Mule ewe lambs, with this year’s crop of 220 lambs cashing in to average £104.
Not to be outdone, wedder lambs in recent years have all been finished off grass or green crop through Dunbia, with last year’s lot working out at £68 at 19kg. 
This year is nevertheless proving slightly more problematic due to the wet summer and likely to require some concentrate feeding to finish the smaller lambs.
With lambing percentages having slowly but surely risen almost year on year due to better management, the business is virtually at the stage where too many twin-born lambs are being born for the amount of in-bye ground available. This has been achieved with less staff too as in previous years, the units relied on five of a staff whereas there are now only two.

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Admittedly, all appears rosy from the outside, but Malcolm, like many breeders of all breeds is the first to admit, the sheep industry has to address the problem of jaagsiekte, or ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma (OPA) – a disease for which there is no vaccine and no cure and one which has affected large numbers of sheep up and down the country.
“We really didn’t believe we had a problem with OPA, but as a member of the Upper Clyde Farmers Club’ Moredun Institute OPA five-year trial group, we scanned all our sheep last year and found 1% of our ewes with the disease which we culled. 
“This year, that figure has reduced again  so I’d like to think that as the numbers are reducing  we are getting on top of things, but we will know better at the end of the trial.
“I do feel the flock is healthier now that we are culling all those showing positive signs on scanning, and we are placing more emphasis on bio-security as we don’t lend out lambs and scan all bought in tups,” Malcolm added. 
“As breeders we are doing as much as we can to be pro-active and protect our own sheep but also the future of the Blackface sheep breed and in doing so we also hope to provide potential customers with added confidence in the breed.
“We now scan all our ewes once a year and the shearling rams are scanned three times – after weaning, in the spring as tup hoggs and just before the sales. We also scan our draft ewes and tup lambs just before the sale. However, it would be better if more breeders scanned their sheep,” he said.
“Out with OPA the 1850 pure blackface ewes which are hefted on Whelphill and Hartside which rises to 1850ft above sea level along side 350 Blackies crossed with the Bluefaced Leicester at Tintoside, are fortunate in that there is no tick on any of the farms. Liver fluke causes few problems too, as the sheep only have to be drenched twice for fluke.
With the farms concentrating more on breeding shearling rams than ram lambs, they are also fortunate in that many of their own tup lambs can be used on the farm. New stock rams do have to be purchased though.
“We aim to breed big sound shearling rams and a few tup lambs for the commercial market, with the top end selling to breeders.  I like my tups to be black headed with four good legs and a leg in each corner with a good body, tight coat and ring presence,” said Malcolm adding that two best breeding tups to date have been a £20,000 Dyke which bred last year’s £12,000 Whelphill shearling ram sold at Lanark and a £16,000 Blackhouse which bred sons to £5000 and many other four-figure priced tups.
This year’s shearling entries for Stirling, Lanark and Dalmally include sons of the £62,000 Dalchirla; sons of a £21,000 Dyke; a £5000 Hartside and a £15,000 Dyke, with the small entry of lambs for Lanark, by a £13,000 Crossflatt and a £17,000 Glenrath.
These sales of course come on the back of an already chaotic season for the Coubroughs which over the past few weeks has seen Scotch Mule and Blackie ewe lambs sold and pedigree Texel tups from the 40-ewe flock sold at Lanark and Kelso. 
There is light at the end of the tunnel now though with just the draft Blackface ewe sale at Lanark, and the main tup sales to go now, before it all starts again and enthusiasm builds for another lambing to see how this year’s purchases have performed.
“Blackface sheep breeders are such an enthusiastic group of people but then there is so much interest in the breed when you see the attendance at the sales, stockjudging competitions and the shows. 
“There is definitely a healthy, strong interest in the breed for producing the Scotch Mule and pure-bred Blackies. We just need to be more pro-active and continue to breed sheep for size and tups with a good open cast of horn,” concluded Malcolm.