AFTER AN unbroken spell, starting in 1838, the Kelso Ram Sales have been cancelled three times in 20 years – albeit with a virtual sale in 2007.

Each time this was because of a pandemic, either animal or human. For the past two years, we have had nearly 100 rams at the sale, so we are faced with quite a change. We must play the hand we have been dealt, nevertheless it is a big disappointment.

For most of my life, around 4000 rams were sold at Kelso with a peak of 7730 in 1998. Numbers have dropped since then to about 5000. It will be interesting to see how rams sell at Lanark, Carlisle and St Boswells, and if this year’s emergency measures impact on numbers at the Kelso Ram Sales in future.

Since my earliest days, I have been involved with the tup trade. The first job I had as a boy was helping to number our North Country Cheviot rams for Hawick Ram sale, which was held on the Tuesday after Kelso.

We numbered them with tar which was melted in a pot on an open fire. It was a fiddly business. If the tar wasn’t hot enough it wouldn’t stick to the tups wool. If we put the pot too near the flame it would catch fire and there would be a panic.

In the 1960s, sheep weren’t paying well and many arable farmers sold their flocks of Half-bred ewes. The demand for Cheviot ewe lambs declined, so we reduced the Cheviots and replaced some of them with Mules, which we were already breeding on the hill ground for sale.

We needed Suffolk rams. The Texel wasn’t an option then. Soon after, we were selling cull ewes at Bosomworth’s market, at Gorgie. In a nearby pen were some, to my eye, outstanding Suffolk ewes. Willie Blair, the auctioneer, told me that they were the best ewes registered or unregistered, that he sold and belonged to Sandy Hogg, of Longyester, near Gifford.

I bought Sandy’s spare ewe hoggs the next year. Shortly after, I bought some ewes at the Bartlehill reduction sale. In 1982, Bartlehill, in partnership with Roseden, had bought an outstanding ram Garrowby Goliath for a relatively modest sum.

Goliath was much taller and longer than Suffolks then in fashion. He had been placed fifth out of five at the Great Yorkshire Show and was exactly the type I wanted. Two of the 10 ewes that I bought were by him. Although they cost double what the others did, I wished later that I had bought more by him and less by the others.

My lamber at the time, Matty Little – who was from a well-known herding family – commented that ‘maybe Rawburn wasn’t really a Suffolk place’. He was right.

When we moved down to Roxburgh Mains in 1993, they did much better. Furthermore, they were on the doorstep of the Kelso Ram Sales. At that time, as I mentioned, rams making high prices in the pedigree world were thickset and blocky.

Those in the unregistered ring at Kelso were, like Goliath, much longer and heavier. Along with Longyester, the best came out of Northumberland and were my models.

Over the 36 years we have sold at Kelso we enjoyed a great relationship with our Suffolk auctioneer, Billy Stott, of John Swan and Sons. One of the words which constantly reoccurred in Billy’s sales talk in the rostrum was ‘natural’. We used to kid him about it.

‘Natural’ – like ‘free’, ‘improved’, ‘exciting’ and ‘new’ – is a potent buzzword used by the marketing profession. Check out breakfast cereals in the supermarket. Even the gloopiest, most sugary has ‘natural’ on the box which salves the conscience of the harassed housewife when she buys it for her kids instead of porridge.

Every time Billy told the ringside that our rams were ‘natural’ I laughed and mused that I had washed them, teased out their wool, dressed them, sprayed them with dip and washed their faces. If they still looked ‘natural’, then I hadn’t made much of a job!

The reality is that selling rams through a market demands that they are prepared appropriately. Do otherwise, as many have tried in the past and expect a hammering.

Rams today are certainly shown more naturally than they were in the past. They are bare clipped, whereas they used to be blocked. ‘Bare the back and leave as much on the sides as you can’ was the mantra. This was easier said than done with the hill breeds.

Among the most successful vendors to sell at Kelso, the Templeton brothers, of Sandyknowe, had an orraman doing nothing day-after-day but untwisting between finger and thumb the pirls on their Border Leicesters. The wool would then be combed out before being blocked and dressed. The shape of the sheep on the sale day bore scant resemblance to their actual body shape.

Dressing may be easier now, but the ram sellers at the public auction know well that feeding still cannot be eased back and extra fettle will be well rewarded in the ring. Even at on-farm sales, where rams only stand comparison with their own brethren, they are rarely short of condition if not through hard feed then with powerful forage crops.

It is worth remembering that, whatever way we present them, nothing alters their genetics and that the computer is already replacing the shears – at least in part.

Traditionally, sellers of high-priced tups have their day of glory at Kelso, but auctioneers too have their heroes who are known for their repartee. Long before my time, Mr Fairbairn sold 800 rams in nine hours without a break. On one occasion after selling a ram at a big price he remarked to the buyer: “Now sir, your flock has been falling off for some years. You’ve now got the sheep to suit you.”

Later in the day, when the ringside was tiring, he shouted: “Look at that sheep –WAKE UP!”