Towards the end of Kelso Ram Sale, while in the course of conversation with a well-known sheep breeder of my own vintage, I remarked that the number of cross-bred rams at the sale seemed to be increasing.

“Och,” he replied, “cross-bred tips! We ken a’ aboot them”. I gathered that he wasn’t a fan.

In my youth, there were always a few cross-bred tups at Kelso. They never made much. I always wondered who used them and why.

Before the Second World War, Half-bred (Border Leicester cross Cheviot) rams were sold in quite large numbers at the sale. My grandfather usually sold about 20. The top sheep never made as much as his Cheviots at Hawick as they had no value as stud rams, nevertheless the average came close.

They were used on Half-bred ewes and, when their female offspring were sold, the vendor had to declare them as Half-bred out of Half-bred. It was recognised that they might look the same as first cross lambs sired by a Border Leicester out of a Cheviot ewe but, because they had reduced hybrid vigour, they wouldn’t do as well.

I only bought a cross-bred ram once. He was a cross between a Suffolk and a Dorset Down. He didn’t cost much and, for the job he had to do, it was important that he wasn’t too big. He was to implement one of the many experiments that I have tried over a lifetime. Most of these told me what didn’t work, rather than what did.

We had 2200 Blackie ewes at Rawburn, of which around 300 were crossed with the Bluefaced Leicester. These ran on the hill at night and down into old pasture fields by day. Due to the increasing popularity of the Mule ewe lambs, they were very profitable.

On the higher ground, all the ewes were kept pure. We drew 40 of the plainest ewes to the cross-bred ram.

The resulting lambs were outstanding. They weighed much more than the pure Blackies and went fat straight off their mothers. I thought I had cracked it, until my shepherd pointed out their dams. They were skin and bone.

My life until 25 years ago was as a suckled calf producer. I had inherited a couple of very moderate pedigree Angus cows from my father. Their bull calves were used mainly at home.

It always amazed me just how much better their paternal brothers out of the cross-bred cows were. At that time, all bulls had to be licensed at a year old by a government inspector. If passed, they were tattooed with a thistle in Scotland or a rose in England and only then were allowed to be used.

The inspection was cursory – testicles, mouth and a look at the breed society registration certificate to check it tallied with the youngster’s tattoo and he was through.

The big taboo was a cross-bred bull. This was a relic of the pre-war period when impoverished farmers used what were termed ‘scrub’ bulls because they couldn’t afford a pure-bred one.

The only exceptions to the regulation were the Cadzow brothers who were developing a new breed on the island of Luing. They had many hoops to go through before they received permission to use cross-bred bulls. They finally got agreement with a strong point in their favour being that the bulls couldn’t jump a fence into their neighbour's cows as they were on an island.

Since then, cross-bred rams and bulls have never made a huge impact on the national sheep flock or beef herd. I have little knowledge of the breeds of females they are mated to, however visual evidence exists that cross-bred males work best when their parents are of a similar type.

Sometimes, as with the Texel and the Beltex, they are obviously from the same stem. It remains to be seen how big a part modern breeds or hybrids such as the Easycare or Stabiliser will play in the future.

In 1982, when studying beef production in North America, I visited 51 herds of various breeds. During that time, I met several outstanding breeders, but only three I considered visionary.

All were driven men. One was obsessively so. Larry Leonhard had developed a very prominent Angus herd, which had done well in the show and sale ring. Since then, he had moved on.

He argued that it was no longer sufficient to call cattle ‘pure’ just because they were horned or polled, had a black, white or red coat or any other characteristic common to all animals of that breed. The pedigree breeders responsibility was to produce cattle that would be pre-potent for stated traits, be they high growth or easy calving or milk yield or whatever.

Some of his bulls would be like everyone else’s and would leave a little bit of everything but nothing to the same degree as his bulls which specialised in one trait. All his claims were the result of weighing real cattle in the field.

This greatly challenged the viewpoint of most pedigree breeders of time and probably more than a few today.

Leonhard’s opinion was that genetic purity was a myth. Even if a beast had a pedigree tracing back two centuries, in evolutionary terms that was a mere nanosecond in the aeons of time.

In an era before knowledge of the bovine genome, he reduced genetic diversity by in-breeding different sections of his herd for specific traits. Over time, predictably, his own animals regressed in type.

Nevertheless, his clients knew that they would do what he claimed and would explode spectacularly when out-crossed in their herds. Those pedigree breeders who selected their seedstock primarily on what took their fancy, he disdained as 'multipliers'!