Just shy of 30 years have passed since The SF last visited Elmscleugh, and while there have been some massive physical and financial changes in that time, the Dunlops have never strayed far from their overwhelming passion to breed the best Blackface rams and females.

They’ve not done too badly either, with two six-figure ram lamb sales under their belts and numerous five-figure tup lamb and shearling rams sold at Lanark and Dalmally.

The Scottish Farmer: Three of the tup lambs that will be heading to sales in October Ref:RH200921024  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

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Having topped the Lanark breed sale 11 times in the past 30 years, and always in the top lots at United Auctions’ Dalmally and Stirling sales, if not leading them, Willie Dunlop and sons Quintin and William, are all too aware of the stress involved in continually breeding such superior quality sheep. However, they are also the first to admit, the buzz of the ram sales is what they live for.

“Lanark and Dalmally Blackie tup sales are the highlights of our year and something we still look forward to,” said Willie.

The Scottish Farmer: Ref:RH200921042  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

“It’s great to see such good quality stock and commercially sound sheep full of breed character, which these sales are renowned for. The sales are fantastic, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find new stock rams – either that or I’m becoming too fussy,” he joked.

Being selective, coupled with the boys’ core beliefs in breeding commercially sound sheep with size and power, are nevertheless the main reasons why Elmscleugh remains at the top of the tree.

The Scottish Farmer: some of this years consignment of Blackface shearling that will be heading to sales in October  Ref:RH200921017  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

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“Blackies are still the most numerous breed in Scotland and the one that pays best here. Why would you have any other breed when we can sell Blackie lambs straight off their mothers at 42kg in August?” Willie asked.

“We had 154 Blackie wedder lambs away deadweight in August which averaged £98.50 and earlier this month 490 were sold with an average carcase weight of 19.3kg at £93.”

The Scottish Farmer: In contrast to many of the top breeders, the Dunlops have never flushed individual breeding females and have only AI’d a couple of times. Instead, they prefer to have their ewes tupped naturally and lamb all outside Ref:RH200921034  Rob Haining /

It’s this rationale, combined with the huge enthusiasm in the breed, that Blackface rams continue to make big money, year in, year out, too – and contrary to popular belief, such sales are not generated by wind turbine money.

“Blackface rams were making big money way before there were turbines. Breeders are so enthusiastic about their breed and about breeding the best, that there is huge competition to buy superior quality tups. Such is the demand, that breeders often join forces to buy individual rams, which in turn can further increase values.

“There are also so many new breeders coming into the breed, which again adds competition,” Willie said adding that forking out a lot of money for a ram is seen as an investment and one which often pays dividends.

“One of the best tups we ever sold was an £100,000 lamb at Dalmally which was full of character and went on to breed a £45,000 lamb for Midlock, which in turn was the sire of our £160,000 Elmscleugh lamb.

The Scottish Farmer: Some of the ewe hoggs that will be retained for breeding at Elmscleugh Ref:RH200921008  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

The Blackface breed is however, best known for her maternal characteristics, and breeding top quality ewes is just as important as the rams – if not moreso.

Quintin added: “People forget that you need the females just as much as the tups. We never sold that many high priced tups off the £100,000 Nunnerie lamb we bought, but he is the sire of most of the mothers of our tups being sold now and he was the sire of the dam of our £160,000 Elmscleugh.”

Having sold ram lambs to £160,000 at Lanark and £100,000 at Dalmally, and numerous other five-figure priced shearling rams and tup lambs, there is never any problem selling Elmscleugh females either.

Most years some 450-500 Blackface ewe lambs are sold privately to regular buyers, and while the drafts are retained for breeding, they also sell well through the live ring as six and seven-year-olds. This year the farm has cashed some 400 over aged ewes to average £91 with a top price of £128.50, through UA Stirling.

In saying that, the boys have always gone for good sized commercial breeding sheep.

William added: “We’ve always looked to breed size, power and shape in our females. If we can get the females functionally correct, the tups eventually come.”

Such have been the high prices achieved for Blackface sheep from this original 1500-acre hill farm based just outside Innerwick, Dunbar, that the family has been able to buy another 900, more productive acres to provide home-grown forages for the cows and increasing numbers of bought in youngstock.

Over the past 30 years, livestock numbers have increased from 1200 Blackface ewes, 350 Mules and 150 suckler cows, to 2000 Blackface ewes, a flock of 100 pedigree Texels, 250 suckler cows and followers. A further 300-400 suckled calves are also bought in to sell as forward stores through United Auctions, Stirling and 1200-2000 lambs, depending on grass availability, for finishing.

The business nevertheless revolves around the Blackface ewe flock of which 400 are lambed by shepherd Donald McDiarmid at Pateshill and the remaining 1600 split between Quintin and William in various hefts.

The Scottish Farmer: line-up of smart and alert Blackfaced tup lambs bound for sales in October Ref:RH200921021  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

With the hill, which rises to 1300ft above sea-level comprising mostly molinia grasses and all fenced, ewes can be easily shed to individual rams, with Quintin’s lambing starting on April 1 and William’s on April 10.

Ewes are fed from scanning time onwards depending on their condition, with single and twin-bearing ewes running together even after lambing for ease of management. Only the triplet-bearing ewes are run separately to ensure they get additional nourishment, with a third of these ewes able to rear their lambs full term.

Running singles and twins together might not be the norm, but it is a policy which is bearing fruit, with speaned lamb crops usually working out around the 155% mark.

In contrast to many of the top breeders, the Dunlops have never flushed individual breeding females and have only AI’d a couple of times. Instead, they prefer to have their ewes tupped naturally and lamb all outside.

“I really don’t think flushing and AI’ing has helped anyone as there is much more of a tail end in the Blackface sheep breed now. I also think we need to look more at breeding correct sheep with size and shape because a Blackie can compete with all breeds. Take off the head, and a Blackie will pay just as well as a Suffolk, Texel or Cheviot, provided it has the shape and size,” Willie said.

Outwith the Blackie enterprise, the introduction of a 100-ewe pedigree Texel flock is also paying dividends with top shearling sales of up to £7500 at Kelso, and, just last weekend, the team sold the highest priced Texel shearling ram at United Auctions’ multi-breed ram sale at Stirling, at £3800 for a son of a home-bred Elmscleugh, which was the sire of most of their pen.

Cattle numbers have also increased significantly over the years and with them, have come several new sheds to house them. Most of their suckler cows are Limousin crosses of which all bar the heifers are bulled to a Charolais, to produce the ‘best paying’ cattle in the market. However, it’s only now that the family feel there are sufficient returns in selling forward stores after eight years of subdued values.

“In 2013 we were selling pens of cattle at £1500 per head, and we’re only back up to those sorts of prices now. By the end of this year we hope to have sold 400 head to average £1400,” said Willie.

Needless to say, there is never a dull moment for this family business which originated in Ayrshire, with Willie’s grand-father selling Blackface rams off Dalwyne and his father, Quintin, off High Troweir, at Newton Stewart. Having moved to Elmscleugh when Willie was 15 years of age, he has nevertheless always lived with the mantra he was brought up with – ‘Your tup money pays for new stock rams’ – and it still does.

Sadly, they no longer sell at Newton Stewart, but instead will have ram lambs and shearling rams for the breed sale at Stirling on Saturday, October 11; Dalmally, on Saturday, October 16 and at Lanark on Thursday and Friday, October 21 and 22.