A stringent breeding programme ensures the right type of sheep are bred to thrive on the Remony Estate, Perthshire. Ewan Pate reports.
In many ways the Blackface breed and Remony Estate are made for each other. The terrain on this 3,082-hectare (7,616-acre) Highland Perthshire unit is not unduly harsh, but it suits a hardy type of sheep that can breed reliably and make the best use of hill pastures.
Estate owner James Duncan Millar knows this well and he and head shepherd David Nicol have a breeding policy that matches their needs.
He says: “We are looking for size in our ewes and when we are selecting tups, either of our breeding or bought in, we look for big strong sheep with very straight legs. It is size which puts the value on our wedder lambs, so it is important.”
He also has to take account of the lie of the land. Remony, which was bought by his grandfather, an Edinburgh lawyer in 1925, rises from 100 metres above sea level on the south shore of Loch Tay to 888 metres on the highest point. This is just short of the 914 metres needed to classify the hill as a Munro.
More significant than the altitude is the aspect, with the whole estate generally north facing. This could tend over time to make the ewe stock smaller and the constant emphasis on size, correct legs and good conformation is designed to counteract this natural tendency.
The 1,750 south-type Blackface ewes are at the heart of the diversified estate and are looked after by Mr Nicol, who succeeded his now retired father, Willie, as head shepherd, and by David Livingstone, a young Northumbrian who has been at Remony since January. The ewes are run over four hirsels with the Balmacnaughton in-bye hirsel, carrying a foundation stock of 300 ewes which are covered by bought-in tups and the best of their retained home-bred sons.
This year, the ewes will be bred with an £13,000 Dyke, an £8,500 Kirkstead, a £4,000 Allanfauld and two home-bred sons of the £13,000 Dyke. This year’s purchases include shearlings from Longcroft, Hartside Lammermuir, Dalckirla and Wanwoodhill.
The Balmacnaughton hirsel supplies some rams for the other hirsels and for the annual consignments for sale at Stirling, Dalmally and Lanark. This comprised of 27 strong shearlings, of which 18 had been used as ram lambs.
Prior to the sales the sheep were taken nearby North Amulree for the Highland Perthshire Tup Night. This sociable tradition is replicated across the country in the weeks before the major Blackface sales, and tests the stamina of man and beast while giving prospective buyers a chance to measure up the various consignments.
Mr Duncan Millar said: “The purpose of our sheep enterprise is to breed ewe lambs, gimmers and shearlings for sale and to finish all the other lambs off rape and kale between December and March. The policy with the rams is to sell good shearlings which will bring in enough to allow us to buy top-class bloodlines from other flocks.”
Until five years ago the Balmacnaughton hirsel was in the Signet recording scheme, but the returns from the marketplace remained elusive.
Mr Duncan Miller says: “Frankly no one round the Blackface rings was interested. There was no doubt the system could tell you things you could not see in terms of maternal twin-bearing or longevity characteristics, but a good shepherd can tell you much the same, including mature size, breed characteristics and conformation.”
He has, however, not abandoned recording and still tags and records all female sheep for his own records. Wedder lamb carcase weights have increased from 16kg to 18kg since he began recording.
The tupping on all Remony hirsels is carried out on in-bye land and lasts for one cycle, or 17 days.
The ewes are then turned back out on to the hills with chaser rams to catch any stragglers.
The aim is to achieve a 120 per cent to 130 per cent lambing. Lambing is also carried out in-bye and starts on April 3 with the 250 ewes which are crossed with the Bluefaced Leicester to produce Scotch Mule ewe lambs. A consignment of 120 from the 2017 crop sold at Stirling in September to average £118 per head.
The autumn sales campaign includes 80 to 90 Blackface gimmers and 60-70 ewe lambs. Stock ewes are sold at five years old and sold either for further breeding on lower ground or for fattening.
Wedder lambs, mostly destined for sale through the Highland Glen co-operative, based in nearby Aberfeldy, are finished on rape or kale. This is rotated around land below the hill dyke and is used as a tool to fix nitrogen prior to re-establishing the fields with young grass.
THE farming enterprise at Remony also includes two spring calving herds of suckler cows, one running with a Salers bull and the other with a Simmental.
Three Shorthorn cross Highland heifers are bought each year and these are crossed with the Salers to provide replacements. All the offspring are sold in the autumn to Mr Duncan Millar’s brother, Ian, who farms four miles away at Tirinie.
Bulls and heifers not required for breeding are sold in the prime market with some breeding heifers bought back as replacements for Remony.
JAMES Duncan Millar has been in charge at Remony since 1986 following an 19-year career as an officer in the Black Watch.
He has kept up the family tradition of running a diversified estate with a number of income streams beyond farming. One of the most interesting comes from two hydro- electric schemes feeding into the national grid.
“We are possibly facing a future with less farming support. In that situation the hydro schemes become important for balancing the income of the estate as a whole,” Mr Duncan Millar says.
The first scheme on the Acharn Burn, just above the scenic Falls of Acharn, was constructed in 1992 on the site of an earlier much smaller installation dating back to 1925. The burn has a 12.5 square kilometre catchment area and generates 350 kilowatts.
The penstock pipe bypasses the falls, but under a voluntary agreement with the local authority a compensatory sluice in the dam makes sure there is always an adequate flow down the natural watercourse.
A second scheme was built in 2013 to harness the power of the Remony Burn and it can generate up to 490 kilowatts.
“Together these should provide a considerable cash flow benefit, primarily in the upkeep and modernisation of the many residential properties on the estate once the high capital costs have been repaid,” says Mr Duncan Millar.