'Nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all' – AJ Balfour

AJ Balfour, an East Lothian man, was our prime minister from 1902 to 1905.

He wasn’t a very dynamic individual, nevertheless I concede that matters in his remit were rather more important than anything in mine. The above quotation often crosses my mind when I think of my lifelong involvement in the tup trade.

So many of the things that I looked for in a ram and which cost me dearly, were specific to its time and would have been worth little had it been born a decade before, or after.

I grew up among North Country Cheviots and Blackfaces and at a very early age my brother and I were in the lambing field and at the handlings during school holidays.

After leaving school, it was straight back to the farm as odd boy, then tractorman and after that as shepherd of 620 Blackie ewes, about 100 of them crossed with the Border Leicester. My hirsel was numerically the biggest on the farm.

The only feed apart from what they grazed was hay and then only in prolonged snow, so hill sheep were often lean – which was challenging at lambing if spring was late.

I had the enormous benefit of regular contact with experienced shepherds, which shaped my outlook for the rest of my life. In addition, my father was a successful hill farmer and a positive influence who had trod the same path 30 years before I did.

Some years later, I was taught how to bring out the Northie tups by my uncle Tom’s herd, Geordie Anderson, a master of the art.

Due to our family involvement in hill farms in Sutherland, my father sometimes introduced Lairg-type rams into our Border type. It was the right thing to do to keep hardiness, thrift and milk in the stock, but the wrong thing for the tup trade at that time.

The Northie had been evolving over a period of time into a much bigger and more powerful animal. Head and bone were at a premium.

Some of the main flocks were on arable farms which would traditionally carry a stock of Half-breds and so the original virtues of the Cheviot were being bred out. It may not have mattered very much, but actually it did matter as on upland farms the breed was being fast replaced by the prolific and more easily 'herded Mule.

In the 1970s, when I started bringing out the tups, our part hill type weren’t selling well at the Hawick Tup Fair, so I started buying more fashionable rams. Our tup trade greatly improved and we started to win shows.

I had caught the disease and had become a factor in the breed’s decline.

Happily, in recent years, due to flockmasters going back to the North-west, the breed is again doing well with a hill ram recently making a record price.

At Rawburn, we had one Cheviot hirsel and four Blackie hirsels. Over time, in addition to Rawburn, I looked after other farms with another four Blackie hirsels.

Even at that time, when flocks were traditionally 'herded, good shepherds weren’t plentiful and most wanted to be involved in the tup trade. The reality is that my heart wasn’t in it.

Every time I got near what the market wanted, the fashion had moved on. Unlike with the Cheviots, the rams I bought usually cost much more than I ever got for those I sold. My solid bank of commercial experience seemed to count for little.

It may not have mattered very much, but for me it did as so many of our best lambs were being culled because they didn’t have the 'colours' fashionable at the time. So, often over the years, I saw rams of good commercial type play second fiddle to others whose main virtue was the colour of their face.

I haven’t been involved with Blackies for two decades, but still fashion remains the prime mover. I watched videos recently of ewe hoggs making four figure prices in the ring. Their high heads and long necks seemed more like those seen on a Leicester.

Some things may or may not matter very much, however I recall some advice given to me by a shepherd called Jimmy Murray. Only the oldest will remember Jimmy. He had never been involved in the tup trade, but few knew more about hill sheep.

He told me to my great advantage that the head and the tail head on the hardiest rams should be the same height above the ground.

In previous articles, I mentioned horns which could remove a cork from a bottle. I saw a video recently of a rare breed of sheep called the Boreray.

There are two main islands on the St Kilda archipelago. Hirta, the larger was inhabited and is the one most often seen in pictures and film; while Boreray, the smaller island, is treeless and grass covered. It slopes steeply from cliffs 150 feet high on the west side to more than 800 feet on the east.

Hirta was and remains stocked with Soay sheep. They are small feral type sheep, brown in colour with fine horns.

The sheep of Boreray are totally different and were originally Blackies introduced in the 19th century. When the islands were abandoned in 1930, they were left on the island and since then nature has taken its course.

They are still of Blackie type but obviously without human influence. They are small, multi-coloured and their coats are as much hair as wool.

The horns on the rams are magnificent. Sturdy enough to resist an autumn battle, they emerge level and slightly backwords from the skull dropping to a low point about two inches from the cheek and then continue out in a perfect spiral.

No small gimmer will ever be torn at lambing by the buds of a tup lamb. No horn will ever need heated, twisted or cut.

Nature sorted all that out a long time ago. It may not matter very much. It may not matter at all, but maybe it should.