When it comes to Hebridean sheep, you would struggle to find an individual who regards the breed more highly than David Braithwaite. Hannah Park finds out more.
A keeper of Hebridean sheep for most of his life, David Braithwaite will be a familiar face among breeders across the country.
Not least because of his years of work to promote and support the breed, but also his demeanour and the welcoming reception others have undoubtedly had on meeting him; testament to what they say about actions speaking louder than words.
Be it through his work with the Hebridean Sheep Society, his own research work and projects to examine the breed’s potential or exhibiting at countless shows and sales over the years, it could be fair to say he can be given some credit for the breed being known as it is today in the UK.
Life has seen David, who is based in the Scottish Border, follow various paths, but it was his interest in nature conservation which got him into the breed, while working as a volunteer with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in the early 1980s.
David recalls looking for a way to manage Skipwith Common, an area of lowland heath, most of which had succumbed to scrubland in the postwar era after being used as an RAF bomber base during World War II.
He says: “After the war, birch woodland had all but taken over and if we were to maintain the open heath and its capacity for providing habitat for specific species of wildlife, such as the rare and enigmatic nightjar, we needed to keep it open and find something to control the birch scrub.
“We experimented with several breeds, but nothing compared to the Hebrideans when it came to their insatiable appetite for scrub woodland.” Keen to prove their worth, David says he and colleagues recorded what they had found and communicated with similar conservation bodies.
He says: “To this day, those managing areas of lowland heath habitat are using Hebridean sheep to manage the birch scrub.” After that, David was hooked.
He continued to keep Hebridean sheep through various career paths, which saw him spend 19 years as an agricultural lecturer at Bishop Burton College, to 12 years working as a site manager for the RSPB in north east England, where he was also able to use Hebrideans as land management tools.
Over the years, he also built up his own flock and made a name for himself on the shows and sales circuit, rarely missing an opportunity to showcase his stock, with credible success locally and nationally, including at the national Hebridean show over the past 35 years.
But with a lifelong interest in farming, the desire to own and run his sheep from his own farm is one he could not shake off.
So when the opportunity arose to purchase sheds and ground of his own, it was an offer he could not refuse.
Since moving to Ettleton Farm, Newcastleton, Scottish Borders, two years ago, he has not looked back.
"Nothing compared to the Hebrideans when it came to their insatiable appetite for scrub woodland"
David says: “I have always had an interest in farming and kept Hebridean sheep since I was in my 20s.
But until moving to the farm, they had always been a sideline to another full-time job, which had meant trying to fit them around other commitments and always farming in the pitch black in winter.
“I have my own shed space and some ground now at Ettleton, have been able to rent some land in the surrounding area for a reasonable amount and have bought a cottage in the village where I now live.
If I did not make the move when I did, I never would have.” The move has seen David come to manage some 20 hectares (50 acres), 6ha (15 acres) of which are owned and the rest rented, alongside grazing rights he has on hill ground.
What is now his 72-head flock is made up of 40 pedigree Hebridean ewes alongside 26 Hebridean Mules, the result of putting a Hebridean female to a crossing type Bluefaced Leicester tup.
Outlining this as his latest project, David explains how he and a friend and fellow Hebridean sheep-keeper, Martin Andrews, have embarked on their own breeding programme to assess the value of the self-termed ‘Heb Mule’.
The pair have been closely monitoring the performance of these cross-breds for the past couple of years, noting figures around production cost and net margin.
David says they plan to share their findings among other breeders and is hopeful they can highlight what they see as potential for the cross, in terms of its energy needs, durability and longevity.
He says: “I see it as a potentially viable sheep on more marginal land, given its smaller stature and subsequent reduced energy demand compared to similarly bred sheep.
“I think you have to meet the market halfway and produce something which there will be a demand for.
“Hebrideans are uniquely recessive in their black colour, so that always gets masked by a tup with a dominant white gene.
There is a lot to be said to the visual appearance of lambs in a market.” This is the third year he will be lambing the crosses, and having kept some of the Heb Mule females, David is now looking at how these perform as a second cross when put to the Suffolk tup.
When it comes to lamb sales, David has always been keen to promote the ‘story’ and, for many years, he successfully worked with a contact in London to carry out doorstep sales, where he was able to market his Hebridean hogget at £12/kg.
Logistical challenges led him to move sales more locally when he moved to the Scottish Borders and he now processes and sells all his meat locally, to residents in Newcastleton and the surrounding Border towns and villages.
In the years he has been keeping Hebrideans, David has also remained highly involved in the Hebridean Sheep Society, having worked alongside a group of others to get it off the ground 26 years ago.
David says: “Various activities and initiatives could be plotted through the society’s history, but particularly iconic in the early days was its work to get Hebridean sheep back on the Hebridean isles after various circumstances had led to a cease in their existence there.
“A number of people were particularly supportive in garnering the interest of crofters and we were able to get them back onto the Uists and the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
It is an important part of their heritage which we wanted to keep alive.” After serving as its founding chairman back then, David is back at the helm over a decade later and is now five years into what will be a six-year term as current society chairman.
Just as passionate as he ever was about the work to support and promote the breed, David explains some of its more recent work, which includes working on a project with British Wool for the past five years to secure a good price for Hebridean fleeces.
The society has also developed its own Hebridean hogget trademark, which sees animals sold finished at about 18 months old.
He says: “The scheme is about giving customers the assurances they need around provenance, traceability and a mark of the high welfare standards which have gone into producing that meat.” Working to conserve the heritage breed and find ways it can fit usefully into the UK sheep system is certainly a legacy David looks set to continue with.
He says: “As a society, we are not under the illusion the countryside is going to be overrun with Hebrideans.
“Rather, much of our work is about supporting those keeping Hebrideans in overcoming the challenges they face and finding ways to make niche farming work.
“In the immediate future, now we are out of the Common Agricultural Policy, the UK Governments have a real opportunity to target some agricultural support at pedigree heritage breeds.
“This will help maintain genetically robust populations of otherwise endangered native farm stock, of which there is a rich diversity throughout the British Isles, Hebridean sheep included.”