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Backbone of Britain: Building the Collessie livestock name - from Clydesdale horses to Suffolk sheep

Not too many livestock prefixes survive for 80 years but the Collessie name is an exception and one that continues to go from strength-to-strength. Ewan Pate finds out more.

Pete (L) and Ronnie Black with Collessie Jennifer (L), Collessie Selina Anne (foal) and surrogate mother (R).
Pete (L) and Ronnie Black with Collessie Jennifer (L), Collessie Selina Anne (foal) and surrogate mother (R).

The Black family at Newton of Collessie, Fife, are not only approaching 80 years of successful breeding under their Collessie prefix but have also given it a dual-use by applying it to their Clydesdale horses and Suffolk sheep.

 

The farm, which is near Ladybank, now extends to 405 hectares (1,000 acres) in total and is home to a predominantly arable business run by Ronnie Black, his wife, Dorrie, their sons, Peter and Mike, and their wives, Natalie and Kate.

 

Its origins were however very different.

 

When Ronnie’s father, Hugh Black, moved east from Balloch in Dunbartonshire in 1939, he brought with him the family’s dairying tradition.

 

As well as maintaining his own 30-cow herd and supplying two retail milk rounds, he built up a thriving business dealing in dairy stock.

 

Ronnie says: “My father never forgot that it was the dairy cow which had saved Scottish agriculture, but he always had an interest in Clydesdales.

 

“He however heeded his own father’s advice not to have a show horse unless he could afford it.

 

Breeding

 

“In any event he was not particularly keen on breeding and preferred to go out and buy the horses he wanted. At that time when you bought a horse you could apply your own prefix to it and that is what he did successfully for many years.”

 

Ronnie bought his first horse in 1961 when he was only 15.

 

He paid £125 for a foal by Dunsyre Benedictine with the foal, named Collessie Lucinda, going on to win two first prizes at the Royal Highland Show as a foal and then as a yearling, and then the next year collecting the reserve championship before being sold to Canada.

 

But before that, the Blacks and their Collessie prefix had played an important part in a trade that saved the Clydesale horse from disappearing for ever.

 

Ronnie says: “As tractors took over, the demand for working horses slumped.

 

“At the last Lanark horse sale in 1958 a filly sold for only £29. The market had collapsed.

 

“The breed was only saved by a demand from the US and Canada from some big companies, especially breweries, for heavy horses to use in hitches for promotional purposes.

 

“Budweiser was the best known with its fantastic brewer’s drays. Right through the 1960s my father worked with Peter Sharp of Nether Logie and others to put together annual consignments. One autumn they shipped 32 mares across the Atlantic.”

 

This American trade turned out to be just enough to keep breeders incentivised, but there was always a nucleus of enthusiasm especially among farming people who used Clydesdales earlier in their working lives.

 

Ronnie says: “Some of them have gone back now to having one or two and breeding from them."

“The blocky working horse is out of fashion now and we are trying to breed them leggier and taller for driving.”

Ronnie Black

These are not the only new customers though.

 

The popularity of ridden and driven Clydesdale classes at shows in the UK and Europe had led to a steady demand for horses.

 

Police forces are also using them more and more in their mounted divisions – Clydesdales combine physical presence with docility making them ideal for crowd control.

 

This new-found popularity has led to people from all walks of life heading to Newton of Collessie looking for advice and possibly a horse.

 

Actor Martin Clunes is among recent converts.

 

He came looking for a Collessie Clydesdale but bought two, the first of which he instantly named Ronnie.

 

All this new-found interest along with a vibrant show scene has resulted in around 100 fillies being registered in the UK each year.

 

From time-to-time it might seem that most of them are at Newton of Collessie, with the paddocks round the house full of mares and foals each summer, some being looked after for other owners.

 

Stallions

 

There is also a steady procession of mares coming to be covered during the breeding season of March to July.

 

The Blacks have three stallions at stud with each season becoming busier than the last.

 

This spring saw, for the first time, a foal produced by embryo transplant.

 

Its dam, Collessie Jennifer, has been a prolific prize winner and became especially well known three years ago when she was the ‘poster girl’ for all the publicity material for the Royal Highland Show.

 

However, following a difficult foaling, the veterinary advice was not to put her in foal again but to try embryo transfer.

 

Ronnie adds: “It was something of a rescue situation but the technology was available so we thought we would try it."

 

The resulting filly foal, Collessie Selina Anne, is by the stallion Collessie Challenger.

 

The most influential horse ever produced at Collessie is without doubt the 1992 born stallion Collessie Cut Above.

 

Ronnie says: “He was by Doura Sir Charles and out of Kettleston Valetta.

 

"He lived until he was 18 and is really the horse that made our name. His genes are still dominant here.”

 

Cut Above became so famous that Ronnie was asked to take him for a guest appearance at the Horse of the Year Show as an example of a perfect heavy horse. Even at 16 years old he took the adventure in his stride.

Another important sire in more recent years has been Great American Ben Franklin, imported from the US in partnership with fellow breeders Angus Howie and Noel Porter.

 

Asked what makes a modern Clydesdale, Ronnie says: “It has to be a good looker with great action and personality.

 

Working

“The blocky working horse is out of fashion now and we are trying to breed them leggier and taller for driving. The feather on their legs must be like silk and they must have sound feet.”

 

The policy of keeping at the forefront of the breed has certainly paid off.

 

Show successes are literally too numerous to mention, suffice to say that the Blacks have won the top accolade of the Cawdor Cup four times in their own right and several more times with horses shown for other owners.

 

On a personal level, Ronnie in 2007 won the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland’s Sir William Young Award for outstanding service to the livestock industry. He was also President of the Clydesdale Society in 1996 to 1997.

 

But the Clydesdales are only one part of the Collessie story.

 

The prefix has been used since 1963 for the Suffolk sheep flock and now also for small pedigree flocks of Texel and Beltex.

 

The 60-ewe Suffolk flock is managed primarily to produce ram lambs for sale at the Kelso Ram Sales. In 2002 a son of Muiresk Mayhem sold for £18,000.

 

Ronnie believes the Suffolk sheep remains as important as ever. He and his sons have stuck to producing a ‘British type’ noting that is where substantial demand still lies.

 

There is also a newer addition to the business following the launch of Collessie Feeds.

 

With an on-farm store and a delivery lorry on the road it supplies horse, dog and pet food to owners across the East of Scotland.

 

This bustling family business may be 80 years old but there is certainly no sign of it running out of steam any time soon.

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Proud to farm

Unapologetically proud of the industry, and focusing on the people who make agriculture tick, Farming: The Backbone of Britain is a feel-good editorial campaign to shine a light on farming communities.

 

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