We are heading south of the border in this week's Stockmen of our Time feature, to meet the well-respected and all-round pedigree breeder, Jonathan Watson.

He spoke with Kathryn Dick about his passion for pedigree breeding and his career highs and lows.


I was born in West Cumbria in a town called Whitehaven, where I resided until I was 11 before my family decided purchase and move to Bowsdenmoor, in 1987. Before that, my grandparents had a rented dairy farm and it was a big change to move to arable and beef and sheep. I left school in 1992 and went to Kirkley Hall College for three years and in my final year, my father died so I then took on more of the running of the farm.

Since then, I have worked at the farm and looking back, it would've been nice to go and work for someone else to learn how others operate or travel to Australia or New Zealand to work out there. In 1985, I took an interest in sheep and my mother bought some Suffolk females for me. My uncle and I founded the Brijon Suffolk flock and that’s what got me addicted to pedigree breeding.

In March 1986, I bought some Simmental cross Friesian heifers and reared them and that’s where the commercial suckler cow herd started and my interest in cows was formed. In February 1997, I bought my first Limousin bull, which we calved to heifers and that was where the Limousin passion came from. In Spring 1998, I decided to purchase a couple females privately off Dennis Lowmas, of the Glebedale herd and i then founded the Tweedalde Limousins herd, which is now comprised of 80 breeding females and we also do embryo work.

The Belgian Blue Tweedale herd was founded in 2005 with the purchase of some females from the Broomfield herd. In 2006, I then went to Belgium and purchased some more females to add to the herd.

What got you into showing livestock in the first place?

When we moved to Bowsdenmoor, in 1988, I took my first Suffolk sheep to Kelso Ram Sales and that was a major learning curve. The sheep didn’t make any money and half came home with no bids at all – it was a major eye opener and a case of having to learn quick. I decided to concentrate on breeding sheep to suit the commercial farmer and if I produce something above the commercial standard that would attract the pedigree farmer then it’s a bonus.

What qualities do you like about the breeds that you work with over others?

The Suffolk was losing ground to the Texel breed for position of top terminal sire and a friend encouraged me into breeding Texels so I founded my Texel flock in 1999. I purchased my first 12 females from Mary Dunlop and she tupped them for me the first year. That year I also bought my first Texel stock tup, Goldies Godfather, which will be one of the most influential animals that I'll ever have. I bought him for £400 and his first crop of shearlings went to Kelso two years later and achieved the second top price and top average of the sale. Then the second year, his sons attained the top priced Texel and average at Kelso. I love the Texel breed as the ewes are very maternal and milky, with a carcass quality that suits both the commercial and pedigree farmer.

I love the Suffolks because of their growth and finishing rates – nothing can compare to them and they also make a good crossing ewe.

Amongst the cattle, Limousins are easy managed, easy care and a simple breed overall. You can own a pure Limousin herd and run them as commercials because the cows are milky and calf easy, with calves being small and vigorous. They are the butchers choice for meat yield and will always attain top prices in the live ring.

Similar to the Suffolks, the Charolais breed are fast finishers within the beef industry. A major plus side is that Charolais cross heifers can out perform most other breeds bullocks and perform very good off grass and cereals.

When we owned the Belgian Blue cattle, we found that they performed very well on ad-lib cereals for finishing but the other plus was that the commercial Belgian Blue's produced good females and were still good milkers as pure bred's.

What was your first Royal Highland Show?

My first ever year attending was at 12-years-old, in 1988 but the first time I showed livestock was in 2010. We went with four Belgian Blue's and we achieved three firsts and a second prize and then had the youngest Belgian Blue bull shown at the Royal Highland Show – Tweedale Ebony – which went on to secure the reserve junior and reserve male championship. We also won the junior champion title with the heifer, Tweedale Enhance.

Which was the best animal that you’ve ever shown?

Definitely Tweedale Hawkeye, one of our Belgian Blue heifers. She had ring presence and was so laid back until she entered the show ring and could just about show herself. In our final year with the Belgian Blue's, she stood first at the Royal Highland Show and was awarded the breed champion and inter-breed title at the Great Yorkshire Show – which was a first time achievement for the breed at any major show.

We then took her to the Royal Welsh Show where she stood breed champion and reserve inter-breed. She was a stand out cow and what made it better was the fact that she was sired by a home-bred bull, Tweedale Ebony.

But what was the best animal that you’d ever seen?

I travelled to Belgium, in 2006, where I saw a Belgian Blue cow called Graduee ET De Fooz. She had stood champion at Brussels Show for two years running and I have never seen a cow as big, long, wide or muscly since! She had everything and was pure perfection.

Changes over the years in the showing world – good and bad?

A good change was when the Royal Highland Show built their big purpose building with the show rings located behind it. It was better for the animals as the old little sheds got too hot, whereas now you have easy access and ventilation, which is easier management overall.

A bad point would be the strict health and safety presence at big shows nowadays. We are getting further removed from the public being able to get involved as it's such a big risk being around livestock, which is a shame.

You’re most abiding memory?

Around 1992 there was a Suffolk ram called Pankymore Prelude, which was sold for 20,000gns at the Northern Area Sale, at Ingliston. That ram altered the Suffolk breed – we thought it was good at the time – and looking back he was so influential that he started appearing a few times in a pedigree.

One animal can dominate a breed and takes a lot of breeding to get away from. In a way, he was so different – his hair was courser, he had stronger bone and probably that was the set back for the breed. He wasn't what a commercial man wanted, but was a smart animal nevertheless.

Biggest disappointment in your career?

I've had lots and I get them every week! However, I would say the saddest day would be when we sold Tweedale Hawkeye at our Belgian Blue dispersal sale, in 2015. She was such a good animal but I got very attached to her and watching her sell was a bitter sweet moment. People questioned why I chose to sell her through the ring first and it was because I didn’t want to sit and dwell on her coming – she was a real herd favourite.

Most influential person in your career?

Jim Buntrom – a friend of my grandfather – was a retired shepherd based at Lowick and when I began to show an interest in sheep, he stepped in and gave me great advice and help. He never had experience in breeding or working with Suffolk's beforehand but he was a commercial farmer and had contacts of other farmers that I could learn off of. If I hadn’t come across him, I would’ve struggled to make it in the pedigree sheep breeding world.

In the cattle, George Cormack taught me a great deal about how to bring bulls out and he was one of the last true stockmen of his time, in my opinion. He lived and breathed livestock and I learned how to respect and accept discipline off him. He only taught you how to do things the right way – even the small things like folding a halter to put away, the attention to detail was always drummed in.

Another that I have always admired and given me vision to carry on is Jim Goldie. He can turn his hand to anything and I've gained a great deal of confidence and experience from him.

What’s been your favourite show over the years and why?

By far, the Great Yorkshire Show as the public get involved a little more in it but also there’s more of a closeness between competitors. You can compete but can also come together with thanks to the breed society bars.

Your choice of best stockman ever?

Nowadays I would say Alan Wight, of Midlock. It doesn’t matter what breed of sheep he’s involved in, he’s always at the top and just seems to know what to do and what to breed.

Best and worse advice you’ve ever received?

The best would be don’t listen to what everyone has to tell you – make your own mind up at the end of the day. The worst would be when I was encouraged to build polytunnels for lambing – my biggest regret!

Biggest showing achievement?

Definitely winning the inter-breed championship title at the Great Yorkshire Show with a Belgian Blue, especially since it was a first time achievement for the breed at any major show.

Any hobbies or interests outwith farming?

It's hard to have hobbies when you work with pedigree livestock. I eat, sleep and drink pedigree cattle and sheep!

Favourite tipple?

I would have to say Kevin Watret's Solwayview wheely bin that is always stocked to the brim with free lager - it's the place to be for a beverage!

What’s the future of the show circuit?

The show circuit is on a knife's edge at the moment due to Covid-19 and no one knows how the future is looking. It's a big worry that both small and large shows may find it difficult to survive and re-establish after this pandemic is over.

The farming community relies on these shows to help promote our produce to the general public and help ensure they realise that everyone is dependant on British produce. It also encourages city kids to get out into the countryside and help educate them where their food comes from.