Lambing at Ruthven Farm, Tomintoul, is very much a family affair for Jim and Lesley Simmons, as daughters, Kirsty and Eilidh both help out along with cousin, Ailsa, who takes annual leave from her full-time job as an AI technician.

Having dispersed their pedigree Gascon cattle herd last year, the family now focus on breeding the popular Scotch Mule ewe lamb, with Blackface ewes lambing to both the Blackie and the Bluefaced Leicester in mid-April.

Twin-bearing ewes are lambed outside by Jim, while the girls attend to the singles, triplets and Mule ewes which are all lambed inside for the ease of management. The aim is for all ewes to go out with two lambs therefore, additional triplet lambs are fostered onto ewes bearing single lambs with any other spares reared on the milk machine.

“In an ideal world, everything would go away with two lambs, but it never quite works like that,” said Jim, adding that this year’s scanning percentages were varied with Blackface ewes at 174% and Mules at 222%.

“Ideally, we want the Blackies to be hitting around 180% to make it worthwhile, but they are slightly back this year. However, the Mules are up 20% possibly due to being tupped on a reseeded ley. The Blackie ewes were treated in the usual way, but perhaps they were in too good condition at tupping time,” said Jim.

While scanning percentages are already pretty good, the family has also increased the number of lambs sold by introducing shelter belts as Ruthven was an extremely exposed, bitterly cold unit when the family took over the tenancy some 15 years ago.

“We have planted 5km of hedge rows, and 15 acres of woodland, to add shelter and it has made a huge difference,” said Jim, pointing out that lamb losses as a result of the harsh weather have since fallen over the years.

Living and working in such harsh climatic and environmental conditions, does mean additional feeding however, with ewes on a Davidsons Animal Feed 18% protein ewe roll four weeks prior to lambing moving up to a 20% protein ewe roll.

All ewes receive 1.5kg of home-grown silage per head a day ¬– taken from 30 acres which usually results in 300 bales.

“Since we dispersed the cattle, we can focus on producing better quality silage rather than an increased quantity silage feed for cattle,” said Jim.

The new bale unwinder, which can spread the silage over 600m, feeds all sheep outside rather than the ring feeder that used to be in the fields, has proved a huge success too.

“When we were feeding in the ring feeder, we found the greedy ones stood there all day and ate leaving others unable to get to the feed and a higher proportion of ewes in poorer condition. Feeding with the bale unwinder means all ewes get a chance to feed.

“It has also made a huge difference to their feet. Before, the sheep were always dirty standing round muddy ring feeders and jumping on top of each other, and lameness was a real problem. With the unwinder we can move it on to a clean bit of ground each day and can target how much food they get. It works wonders,” said Jim.

Most years the Simmons aim to sell 250-300 Scotch Mule ewe lambs a year through Huntly Auction Mart, which last year they averaged £97 per head.

The team always do well in the pre-sale show having been placed for the last three years, which has helped to build up the repeat custom. Final draw ewe lambs that are not quite good enough for the market are kept for breeding.

Mule wedder lambs and Suffolk cross lambs are sold deadweight through Mey Selections which supplies Sainsburys, with last year’s crop averaging 20.5kg and 21kg deadweight respectively. All cull ewes and rams average around the £70 mark.

“Everything is finished on farm, whether it be ewes, lambs or old tups.

“Lambs are mainly finished on stubble turnips, which works really well in our system, as they are easy to grow and they clean the ground before re seeding – it really is a win win situation for us,” said Jim.

There is no ploughing either, with the turnip seed drilled direct into the ground. The Simmons do however, take soil samples from such fields to ensure correct pH levels, with up to 20% of the farm analysed every year.

While all stock is sold locally, Jim does buy most of his stock Bluefaced Leicester rams at the Kelso Ram Sales with three or four shearlings and a couple of ram lambs if necessary are acquired later in the year.

“We used to work with the traditional-type of Bluefaced Leicesters, but we moved to the crossing-type, purely because they breed the type of Mule ewe lamb people are looking for,” said Jim.

In recent years they have bought several Midlock Mustang sons from the Wight family at Midlock, Crawford, as well as a number from Gary McDonald’s Mid-Auchengray flock from Stobo.

“We’re always looking to produce the perfect Mule – which means we look to buy Bluefaced Leicester rams’ darker colours throughout the face, and a good tight skin. Tups also need to have the length and size to show themselves off well in the show or sale ring too.

“I tend to be picky, and if I do find something that is breeding well for us, we try to stick to it as much as possible, this is why we’ve bought three sons of Midlock Mustang, likewise with the Mid-Auchengray stock that have tremendous tight skins,” said Jim.

With Kirsty having her own pedigree Suffolk flock and Eilidh, owning a crossing-type Bluefaced Leicester and Ryeland flock, and Lesley runs a few Icelandic sheep, the farm also have home-bred rams to select from, although they do buy in one Blackface ram every year where there is plenty of choice in the market.

Bought-in stock is isolated for four weeks and wormed with Zolvix, to prevent spread of disease throughout the entire flock.

“When we are selling breeding stock, we can’t risk spreading disease or selling disease in our sheep. We have to keep on top of everything to maintain our reputation, otherwise buyers will not come back,” said Jim.

Prior to tupping all gimmers are vaccinated for Enzootic abortion and everything gets an annual Heptavec booster four weeks prior to lambing, whilst the lambs are given an Ovivac P and Heptavac vaccine later.

“Vaccination has made a huge difference to the health of our flock,” said Jim, who added that the firm had also started footrot vaccinating, starting with the gimmers, as there always tends to be a few lame ones.

“If we start vaccinating the gimmers, in four years’ time everything will be vaccinated for footrot. We’re already seeing a real difference with no lame gimmers at present,” he said.

It’s the little things like this, that Jim believes adds up when it comes to producing top quality, hi-health breeding stock too.

Add to that the family’s success in the show ring, both at the pre-sale Scotch Mule ewe lamb sales at Huntly, where Ruthven regularly appears in the prize list and at their local shows at Turriff, Black Isle and Grantown.

Young Eilidh is also keen on the show ring and last year came second in the senior young handlers at the Royal Highland Show.

“I am gutted the Highland has been cancelled this year, as we have worked through the winter concentrating on our show stock, but it has all been a learning curve for me,” said Eilidh.

Jim added: “Showing helps get our name out there, and puts the mind set into people that we have good stock, so come sale time they will hopefully look out for our stock.”

Diversification is also key to the viability of the business, with farm tours run and offered in conjunction with a near neighbour who has a deer farm. Between the two of them they have a wide range of rare breeds as well as commercial sights to see.

“People are quite open-minded and tend to have an interest in farming, they are keen to learn about the environment and how we run as an industry.

“The rare breeds also work in hand with the farm tours, people want to see them. They will always have a market, as rare breed sheep are less affected by the commercial market with there always being small holders looking, so it isn’t affected by global supply and demand,” said Jim.

With the bad press on farming and the false facts affecting the industry, Jim is always keen to encourage the public to come and learn about how farms are truly run.

“Educating the nation is something that the industry has to adapt to and focus on. It shouldn’t take a crisis like we are now in for people to outline that the food on the shelves comes from the hard work of farmers.

“It is going to be a tough few years, but it is survival of the fittest, and the ones that do come out of all of this, I do personally think have a bright future because, at the end of the day we all need to eat,” added Jim.

Looking to the future, the Simmons have no intentions to upsize numbers but instead to concentrate on what they do and do it better.

Farm facts

Family: Jim Simmons and his wife, Lesley and daughters: Kirsty (18) who is studying Agriculture and Eilidh (15) who is still at school.

Stock: 550 Blackface ewes, of which 100 gimmers are bred to the Blackface tup to breed replacement females with all ewes tupped to a Bluefaced Leicester to produce Scotch Mules. Some 200 home-bred Mule ewes are crossed to a New Zealand Suffolk to breed Suffolk cross lambs, and 50 cheviot ewes bred to a traditional Bluefaced Leicester to produce Cheviot Mules.

Ruthven Farm: Comprises 800 acres of which 300 are ploughable, with 100acres of semi-improved and the remainder 400 acres of rough hill rising from 1000ft to 1600ft above sea-level.

Tenancy: Crown Estate tenancy taken over by the Simmons in 2006, having previously contract farmed a unit Fort William.

On the spot

Hobbies: Fishing, walking and an interest in nature are what Jim likes to keep busy with out with farming. He is also a retained fire fighter, and through the winter he works for the council driving the snow plough and gritter out of normal working hours.

Best investment: “Bale unwinder and the kids who have been a great help over the years, the more you put into them more you get out.”

Best advice: “Make do with what you have got and don’t be a big borrower.”

Dream holiday: “Norway or New Zealand. We did Iceland a few years ago and that was amazing, it is a completely different environment, being a geologically alive place.”