BY FAR our most popular feature of 2019 was this one, about the Irvine family and their photogenic flock of Valais Blacknose sheep...

THE THIRD series of This Farming Life proved once again to be a huge hit with both rural and urban audiences UK-wide, giving viewers a raw and honest insight into the daily lives of our hard-working farming and crofting families.

Father and son duo Johnny and Raymond Irvine provided plenty of laughs, as well as heart-rendering moments, as we followed their relationship working side by side on the farm, enduring some of the toughest months of weather to hit Scotland in recent years.

During the series we see Raymond and his dad working on their Mains of Inverurie farm which is where Raymond and fiancée Jenny stay, along with Raymond’s kids Adele and Johnny. Raymond’s other son Rudy comes to stay on the farm at weekends and according to his dad is a ‘born farmer through and through’.

The Scottish Farmer:

Raymond and Johnny in the pen with the 2020 show team Ref:RH061119047  

Johnny senior lives nearby on the original Inverlochy Farm, where he looks after around 50 cross Simental Saler cattle and together their two farms look after 600 blackface ewes and followers. Raymond is well known on the circuit for his top quality Charolais cattle - his real passion on the farm, looking after 40 plus followers and taking great pride in breeding top price bulls.

In the last five years, Raymond and Jenny have invested in a new enterprise in the form of the UK’s first flock of Valais Blacknose sheep, imported originally from Switzerland. Raymond has Jenny to thank for this new venture, which has turned out to be a fantastic money-maker for the farm when times have been tight, with these fluffy black and white sheep selling for four figure sums to enthusiasts the world-over. They now have around 75 breeding females and 25 followers in their growing flock.

The SF caught up with Raymond two months after the series ended to delve a little deeper into some of the highlights captured on the programme and to hear how things have moved on in the farm exactly a year since the cameras left.

Raymond began by explaining why he got involved with the TV series and the feedback he has received from being part of the show:

“It was my cousin Martin Irvine who featured on the first two series of This Farming Life who first planted the seed for me to go on the programme. When I got in touch with the BBC to tell them a little bit about what we had on the farm and the dynamic between my father and I, they were really keen and that was that really.

“I was nervous to begin with about how we would be perceived on the programme. Farming gets a lot of flack of late and you can hardly do anything now without people complaining and criticising. Bearing that in mind, we were blown away by the stream of positive messages we received and continue to receive from people who watch the programme. A lot of the feedback is from those more removed from farming, living in towns and cities, who have sent supportive messages about the way we farm and how we look after our animals.

“The cameras were here during a few really tough months and the programme reflects some difficult moments we faced during that time and we didn’t want to hide away from some of the challenging decisions we have to make. It’s important that the public get an honest account of the hardships and the triumphs farming faces as it’s not a ‘9-5’ office job but a ‘24/7’ way of life – you put your all into it”.

The BBC crew visited the farm on and off between February 2018 and October 2018 to capture a seasonal feel for the farming year. During that time, Scotland experienced challenging weather patterns with the beast from the east hitting the country in the early Spring, followed by a long hot Summer of drought-like conditions. The programme shows Raymond and team battling through the snow to check on his livestock, making sure they have enough to eat, and on to the next extreme, we see him facing an outbreak of flystrike in the hot summer months, with over 5% of his sheep being afflicted.

Raymond continued: “The farming way of life is not an easy choice; you could be getting up one morning and you lose a calf and you’re cursing yourself, but you have to keep going and look after the rest of your stock. If you dwell on the bad times too much you’ll go in to a dark place and you hear of farmers all the time suffering with depression, struggling to pull themselves out of it – but there are really happy moments with new life on the farm and those are the times you live for.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Johnny, Adele and Raymond with their recent purchase from Stirling in October, Coolnaslee Oreo   Ref:RH061119046

During the programme Raymond talks about a lambing a few years ago where he lost over 100 lambs, stating that it was the worst day of his life: “I’ll never forget that time – I remember lambing the ewes and they were dropping like flies in front of me. A huge curtain of snow and sleet came on and we couldn’t escape from it, the sheep wouldn’t move, and the lambs died in front of me.

“Farmers lose lambs all the time, but we try not to count them, but over those two days there was no escaping the pile of bodies building up. Losing a new life like that is heart-breaking, but you’re going to get those years where whatever you do, there’s only going to be a sad outcome.”

As well as the hard times, there are a lot of special, heart-wrenching moments on the farm where we see Raymond’s love for his livestock and the lengths he will go to, to ensure their survival. One little lamb is born with a soft spine and struggles to stand up – Raymond swiftly moves to create a back brace for the animal to help support it:

“I had a lot of feedback from farmers and viewers about that scene as they couldn’t believe I didn’t just put the animal down. It is so important to me to try do all I can to try and help, as I struggle with the idea of giving up on a life. We have had broken legs on lambs in the past and I have made them leg braces which have worked well.

“It was really important to me that the show demonstrated to the public the care and attention farmers pay to their livestock. We thrive on animal welfare here and it is so hard for farmers when they are compared with practices in other countries who don’t follow our strict standards. If we were caught mistreating our animals, we would never be allowed to rear stock again and we are in this business because we want to do right by our livestock and their wellbeing is paramount to us.”

Another moment from the series where Raymond went the extra mile to care for his animals was when we saw his favourite Charolais bull Major get injured by another bull, which leaves him with a nasty wound on his back leg. Despite regular treatment from the vet, the wound fails to heal, and he is unable to be sold at the bull sales, remaining as part of the home-herd while he recovers. We finished the series with Major being led out to green pastures to meet around 20 females with the hope of him fathering the next group of calves. Raymond updates me on his development since the cameras left:

“Sadly, when we brought in the cows for scanning we found that none of them were in calf and Major was revealed to be infertile. I wanted to give him another chance to see if he would become fertile again, but he was only producing dead semen, so we had to say goodbye to him. We think that the combination of the accident and the penicillin he received may have taken its toll on him.”

It wasn’t just Major who presented fertility problems, but Raymond’s old stock bull Instigator failed to get the females in calf, setting the whole herd back a year. Despite a difficult year with losing two bulls, The Irvine’s are now back on track and have invested in two new fantastic bulls who are looking to be shaping up nicely and working well with the herd. Raymond explained that if it hadn’t been for a really good year with his Valais Blacknose then they don’t know how the farm could have kept going:

“Having two bulls let you down and a whole year out of calving – that really knocked the stuffing out of us, but hopefully things are looking up now and we are really looking forward to seeing the offspring next year from the new bulls.

“Our flock of Valais Blacknose have been a total god-send, we won champion again this year at the Blacknose Beauties competition in September and our top ewe Highland Erin made top price of 6,800 guineas with another ewe making 4,800 guineas. I’ve never seen such a buzz at a show in my entire life – the amount of people crowding the ring, you could hardly move – the atmosphere was electric and the support for the breed was amazing to see.”

The Scottish Farmer:

The specially built Polytunnel provide shelter for Raymond and Jenny's growing flock of Valais Blacknose Ref:EC140319181

The TV series played a huge part in raising the profile of these extraordinary sheep and since the programme first aired back in February, the Irvine’s Valais Blacknose Facebook page has increased their followers to 75,000 and not a day goes by where Raymond doesn’t have an enquiry from a potential buyer looking to buy his stock.

“We have a huge amount of interest from the US but right now we can’t sell embryos to the States, so they are buying semen and putting them to the closest thing they have – a Blackface sheep. We have sold around 1000 straws over the pond.

“We had 14 American visitors who joined us this year for the annual salon experience – a firm highlight from the recent series - which is always great fun as the sheep really enjoy getting pampered.

“The international interest in this breed is extraordinary, but there is no mistaking that the best quality animals are the original Valais Blacknose from Switzerland, which we are lucky enough to have started our flock with back in 2014. Jenny and I love to go out to Switzerland twice a year if we can, once for the gathering of the ewes off the hill in September and again in February for the big tup sale.”

There was one sheep that captured the hearts of the public and that was little Elfie. Not so little anymore, the famous orphan lamb born on Christmas day and typically found following Raymond around like a dog, is now pregnant and has a calendar of exciting events lined up this winter with guest performances at different farming meets.

Although prices have remained strong for the breed over the last five years, Raymond shared his future plans for the breed and how he hopes to look in to exploring the meat side of the sheep:

“The Valais Blacknose have really helped us big time over the last few years and we have never been in such a strong position. The Charolais’s have been such a disaster so the sheep have really pulled us through everything.

“However, we don’t want to assume that the money will always be there with the breed and are currently speaking with specialist restaurants and chefs who are keen to promote the meat. We have tried the meat over in Switzerland and it is delicious. It is a lean meat which is becoming popular here and it doesn’t give off a smell which puts so many people of lamb. Some people will struggle with the idea of us eating the breed but we are farmers at the end of the day and need to explore other markets and the idea of serving the meat in top restaurants would be a fantastic market for them.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Raymond and fiancee Jenny now visit Switzerland twice a year since buying their original flock of Valais Blacknose back in 2014

The relationship between Raymond and his father Johnny is a real highlight of the series, where we see them mischievously challenge one another on day to day issues. However, at the same time it delves into a real issue facing the industry of succession. Raymond tells viewers that he would love to take over the reins from his dad but that he would hate to push him off the farm and prevent him from doing a job that he loves.

“There are days we will shout and swear at each other but an hour later you are back to normal – It’s always been that way and I grew up working with him, so we’re bound to have our moments. My dad didn’t take over the farm from my grandpa till he was in his forties, so I don’t expect to take it over any sooner. I have a lot more say now on decisions on the farm and I’m quite happy for him to potter about and bark orders, so he still feels like the boss.”

Missing from the BBC series was an extremely important figure in Raymond and Johnny’s lives, who for years has been the backbone to their two operations. Raymond’s mum and Johnny’s wife Liz sadly passed away unexpectedly two months ago and it has been a devastating blow to the whole family. He explained what an enormous impact his mum has had on holding the farm together over the years:

“It was all very sudden with mum and we have all really struggled to hold it together in her absence. We had actually started filming with the BBC for the next series of This Farming Life, but we decided we didn’t want to have camera crews following our movements at such a difficult time.

“Mum was our backbone – she worked tirelessly behind the scenes keeping our book work up to date, dealing with accountants, doing registrations and keeping us all right. Sometimes you don’t appreciate all of that until it’s gone and my goodness it has been a massive knock-back these last months.

“If it wasn’t for mum, me and dad wouldn’t be where we are, she took a lot of the pressure off us and took on all the hardest jobs and refused to let us bring in support for her. I can probably speak for around 60% of people in UK who also recognise that women are the backbone of most farms and too often aren’t given the credit for the extremely difficult work they take on with little thanks.

“Farming isn’t an easy job but with the difficult times come so much joy and I am grateful every day for being able to pursue a life not a job, that I love. I hope that through this last series of This Farming Life that we put a strong case forward to the public that farmers really do devote their lives to looking after our livestock and we do so with pride,” he concluded.

The Scottish Farmer:

Liz Irvine sadly passed away in September and will be sorely missed by her family and friends