The Gray family had unprecedented success with their Charollais sheep at last year’s Royal Highland Show. Lynsey Clark paid them a visit to find out more about their prize winning flock.
The Royal Highland Show is always a highlight of the year for the Gray family, but last year was a particularly memorable one for them.
They secured the Charollais breed championship, the inter-breed sheep individual and pairs titles, and to top it off, the coveted Queen’s Cup.
Despite the fact they had won reserve male and reserve female awards in the past, last year was the first time they had picked up any red tickets at the event in 11 years exhibiting.
It certainly was a significant year for the flock, which was established by Russell Gray in 1994.
He says: “We went to Lanark to buy some early lambing cross ewes and arrived home with three pure Charollais. We liked the look of them and took the chance when it was there.”
Mr Gray, in his early teens at the time, had been keen to branch out into his own breed for some time, and saw the Charollais as something different from the family’s already established Texel and Suffolk flocks.
That day at Lanark, the Leelaw flock was founded, with the purchase of a gimmer from the Scratchmere flock, a ewe lamb from Tullochallum, and a ram lamb from Logie Durno.
Mr Gray says: “The fact Charollais are an easy lambing breed definitely appealed to me, as it meant there would not be too much maintenance at lambing time and they would hopefully fit around the other breeds we had.”
The flock developed with another two gimmers from Nether Allan, and later, when the Tullochallum flock dispersed in 1998, Mr Gray bought a Rigghead Rebel-sired ewe lamb.
He cites this as the turning point in the flock’s breeding progress.
He says: “She really knitted well with any tups we put her to and she was a great breeder of females – all females in the flock today trace back to her.
“She was a heavy-bodied ewe, with an impressive carcase and lasted a long time. We got eight crops of lambs out of her.”
Today, the flock consists of 35 females, which run at Langside, the 154-hectare (380-acre) family farm near Lanark, where Mr Gray is now based with his wife Mags and their two-year-old son Matthew.
Milking 130 red and white Holsteins and Ayrshires, as well as running the 25-ewe Suffolk flock and 90-ewe Texel flock, he farms alongside his parents Alex and Grace (who are now at nearby Leelaw Farm), plus one farm employee.
Managing three separate pedigree breeds is no mean feat. Mr Gray admits it was a learning curve to begin with, however, the fact their lambing periods do not clash certainly helps.
Charollais lambing takes place throughout December, with ewes all naturally tupped. Lambing at this time allows them to catch the early spring lamb market for any not hitting the pedigree mark.
Mr Gray says: “Any we are not keeping as replacements or to sell as ram lambs or shearlings, we take to North West Auctions at Kendal. This year’s lot averaged 265p/kg in April.”
Those which do make the grade are mainly sold at Kelso Ram Sales as shearlings, as are Texels and Suffolks. A few are sold as lambs at pedigree sales and, this year, for the first time, Mr Gray plans to take some shearlings to Builth Wells sale too.
Mr Gray says: “There is definitely a bigger demand for Charollais in the south of England and in Wales. The Builth Wells sale always has a great buzz about it, so we thought it was worth giving it a try this year.
“I would say the crossring has probably taken some of the Charollais customers at Kelso, but good sheep still sell well – you just need to be selective with what you take there.”
With this said, Leelaw shearlings at Kelso never seem to be short of buyers, with the Grays’ consignments reaching a peak of £2,000 on two occasions and averaging up to £990 in 2011 for a pen by Rhaeadr Juror, a 2,500gns purchase at Worcester.
Another Worcester buy worthy of a mention is the 1,200gns Banwy Moonshine. He stood reserve male at the Royal Highland Show in 2013 for the Grays and also bred ram lambs to 2,400gns at the Lanark Premier Sale.
Earlier stock rams which left their mark on the flock include a Wraycastle tup bought at Litchfield, which Mr Gray says left progeny with good bodies and plenty flesh on them.
Another was Wraycastle Endeavour, champion at Worcester, bought along with Grangehall for 3,500gns. Mr Gray bred more ‘flash’ into his lambs, which is why many of them made the show teams.
Of their three sheep breeds, the Grays have actually only ever shown Charollais, and this came about as Mr Gray’s involvement with various Young Farmers’ events at the Royal Highland increased, resulting in a lack of time to spend showing dairy cattle.
He says: “With stockjudging and other Young Farmers contests, I was not able to dedicate the time needed to show dairy cows, so we thought exhibiting sheep was a more viable option and started doing so in 2004.”
All this year's Charollais are by Royal Highland champion Oakland Ozll
The plan: To take some shearlings to Bullth Wells sale
Other than the Royal Highland, the Grays generally head round shows which are included in the south of Scotland region show points competition circuit – Ayr, Lesmahagow, Cumberland, Biggar and Dumfries.
Last year, they managed to win the trophy for the first time and also came out top in the flock competition for the second time.
It was at Ayr Show last year when their stock tup, a shearling, Oakchurch Ozil, first made his presence felt in the showring, picking up a first prize ticket. This was followed by a breed championship and reserve inter-breed win at Lesmahagow two weeks later, building up to his success at the Royal Highland, where he went onto stand best overall sheep and was part of the winning inter-breed pair.
Ozil was bought at Worcester the previous year for 550gns.
Mr Gray says: “He stood out because of his size and length, and from the moment we bought him, he never looked back, just kept on growing.
“I always hoped to win the Royal Highland some day, but never actually thought it would happen. It was the first time the Charollais breed had ever won the individual and pairs titles in the inter-breed at the Highland, and receiving the Queen’s Cup made it extra special.”
Ozil not only looks the part, but he has proven himself in the breeding stakes too. His ram lamb son stood first at the Royal Highland and went on to sell at Stirling the following month for 2,200gns. This year’s batch of shearlings and lambs are all by this prize-winning sire.
Ozil has now retired from the show scene for a well-deserved break, but the team will be heading back to Ingliston with some of his flockmates, including the ewe which was part of the winning inter-breed pair, a Banwy Moonshine daughter. Other than the fact they will be showing sheep, it is also the Grays annual ‘holiday.’
Mr Russell says: “I have been going to the Highland Show since I was a toddler and now we are taking our wee toddler Matthew. Even if we are not winning, we love showing there for the atmosphere and buzz and the chance to meet up with friends.
“It is a great showcase for the breed and helps raise its profile. I believe it is a breed which is going in the right direction. Charollais have changed so much in the time we have had them. They have a lot more head cover now and are definitely hardier, which is helping to sell them.”