Facing the challenges of having your flock spread out is hard work but if your passionate about your job, it all pays off
You might think looking after your sheep is hectic enough at home, but imagine if you lived in a town and your flock was spread across the county – dealing with up to 12 different landlords, while holding down a demanding full-time job too.
That is just the challenge endured for several years by Aberdeenshire sheep producers Ross and Kirsty Williams. After seven years of applying for five different tenancies and building their flock at the same time, they were finally successful in winning a starter farm tenancy near Huntly and moved in a year ago.
But it was a long slog, says Kirsty. “When we moved in, people said we had become ‘proper’ farmers, but things were a lot harder for us before we moved. We would get up and do the sheep before work, come home and attend to them, and then be home for tea about 8.30-9pm.”
During lambing, they would often get up to check the sheep at the farms where they were lambing, and have to come back only an hour later if one looked like lambing. Last year, during the snowstorms, they got stuck at 3am and had to walk to see the ewes and then sleep in the pick-up.
People who were less determined might have given up, but sheep are a passion for the Williams’. Ross is originally from a farming family in Somerset, while Kirsty’s father is farm manager of an estate near Aviemore, and they met while studying at SRUC’s Auchincruive campus near Ayr.
Both already had small flocks of sheep. Ross had started doing some carcase competitions with progeny from Rouge cross Suffolk ewes crossed with a Beltex ram, and then started keeping Beltex ewes. Kirsty spent her 21st birthday money on buying Zwartbles, a breed she had seen and liked on a visit to the farm of the late Willie Davidson at Poldean.
The couple are noted for their showing success, including two Highland Show champions in 2011 from their Beltex and Zwartbles flocks - only two weeks after getting married. Now, they have about 60 Beltex ewes under the Blackjack prefix, 40 Charollais ewes put to a
Beltex, 15 Zwartbles and a small number of Bluefaced Leicesters, which are a new venture. Some Beltex cross Charollais ewes are also kept as recipients.
The couple are expanding their flock through AI, flushing and embryo transfer from elite ewes, particularly with the Beltex. Ross has been on several trips to Belgium to buy ewes, and aims to breed a mix of carcase quality and character into his flock – they also only select consistently twin-bearing ewes to flush.
“We also have some sheep we share with three other breeders,” he says. One of the best, known as The Crocodile, was flushed and all four flocks will have its offspring.
Aside from their work on building the sheep flock, both still have full-time jobs. After finishing at Auchincruive, Kirsty became a consultant for SAC, based in Turriff, while Ross worked for NFUS as a regional manager before being offered a job by local feed firm Norvite, which helped to reduce the time he spent travelling, which had amounted to about 60,000 miles a year.
They settled in Turriff, renting a field (which was shared with horses) in nearby Fyvie for their 15 ewes. Even then, it was tricky to find land, and became more difficult as their flock grew.
Ross says: “Through our jobs we managed to find ground, and we would take on small paddocks which maybe were not worth ploughing.
The opportunities are there if you are keen enough – but you have to make your own luck, and you have to ask.”
Kirsty adds sometimes things would be really stressful, with summer grazing finishing before their winter keep was available. Some local farmers were very helpful, they add, allowing them to keep their trailer and equipment in one place, and helping when they became short of sheds for lambing.
Lambing is much easier now the family is on one farm, rather than six
The modern house and steading at Upper Tullochbeg, near Huntly, have provided stability for the young farming couple.
Even so, it was stressful checking sheep first and last thing using head torches and both splitting the twice-daily checks when their sheep were on 12 farms. But they were grateful for the help they received, especially when people would call to let them know when there were emergencies which needed dealing with.
Their aim was always to find a farm tenancy, and they had applied for a few before being shortlisted for one. After the interview, they were told they were runners-up, something Kirsty says was ‘very hard’ to pick themselves up from. “We had a month of being down in the dumps, but then we won the Highland Show and that motivated us again – we are quite competitive.”
When the Scottish Government and Forestry Commission announced they were to launch some starter units, it was the opportunity the couple had been looking for. They applied, did a business plan, five-year cash flows and answered a series of questions before being asked to come to an hour-long interview. This was before a panel of five.
What they did not divulge at the interview was they believed this was their final chance. Kirsty had just found out she was pregnant with daughter Jessica, who was born in August last year, and the couple were at the point where if they were not successful, they would downsize and return to being hobby sheep keepers.
Kirsty recalls: “It was a daunting interview. We had made up a folder of our achievements to tell our story as part of it – we thought it might take their eyes off us for a bit.”
The next day, they got the call to say they had been successful, and moved in to the unit last April. It has been a massive change to be based on one farm – and both say it has made their lives much simpler. Ross adds: “It is amazing to be able to go down to the shed and then be able to go back 10 minutes later if something needs help.”
Being on one unit has also taken ‘massive inefficiencies’ out of the system: the farm truck had done more than 60,000 miles in three years, and embryo transfer work has also been much more successful now the ewes are settled.
But they are stuck with one key issue - no Single Farm Payment and it looks like they will not receive Less Favoured Area payment either. “We know we can manage without them, but it would be good if we were eligible,” says Kirsty. The couple do pay a full commercial rent, but there were no in going valuations, which was a huge benefit and meant there was not the same capital demand at the outset.
The 45-hectare (110-acre) hill unit has a modern house and general purpose shed, and the family is working on improving their grassland through draining and reseeding. They have become a Barenbrug trial farm, so are using new varieties in reseeds and recording flock performance. They have also double-fenced the boundaries to maintain their MV-free status.
“Our aim is to build enough capital over our 10-year tenancy so we have a bigger balance sheet and are in a better position to tender and compete against established farmers,” says Kirsty. “We both still work full-time, so do not need it to live on and are buying assets with any profit, such as better tups, as we want to keep improving the flock.”
Their latest purchase, a £9,000 ram shared with two other breeders, is adding to excitement on the farm this year.
They also committed to helping younger farmers as part of their tenancy, so are hosting YFC stockjudging, and have also made a conscious effort to choose contractors who are starting out in business. “People did it for us, so we want to repay the favour,” she says.
Forestry Commission Scotland’s new starter programme, which the Williams are part of, aims to help young people get their first foothold on the farming ladder.
Scotland, which does not have a council farm network, has been investing in starter farms for the next generation through a number of initiatives, backed by Scottish Government.
The Forestry Commission has been working on a ‘repositioning’ scheme, which involves selling areas with low potential to allow investment in new land to deliver greater benefits.
Successful entrants to a starter farm are given a 10-year lease to enable them to build up a farming business using land and property on the National Forest Estate.
There are currently seven starter farms across Scotland, including units in Fife, Ayrshire, Stirlingshire, Aberdeenshire and Dumfriesshire. Applicants will be sought for a new starter farm at Achnamoine near Halkirk this autumn, the first one to be located in the Highlands.
Forestry Commission Scotland’s district manager for North Highland Tim Cockerill, says the property would be ideal for a new farmer looking for a start in an integrated livestock and woodland environment.
He says: “For new entrants it can be very difficult to get their feet on the first rung of the farming ladder. Vacant properties are rare and often out of the price range for most.”
The initial proposal is to create a starter farm of a similar size to previous units – about 65ha (160 acres) of rotational grazing.