Just seven years after buying his first Zwartbles sheep, Ally Bair has two Royal Highland Show championships under his belt and two ewe lamb records. Lynsey Clark reports.
It was 2011 when Ally Baird first spotted the Zwartbles breed during a visit to the Black Isle Show and, liking the look of them, thought he would buy a few.
He says: “The first Christmas after buying the ewes, I told my family I would win the Highland Show. They all laughed at me, but I think this made me more determined. I entered for the show the next year, which gave me an idea of where I needed to be, and I vowed I would never go back until I had something good enough to win with.”
Those first ewes were bought from the Speyside and Skye flocks, alongside a Tardoes ram. Ally is a builder by trade, running his own building and roofing company, but having worked with sheep in the past, he had a good idea what he wanted as the foundation of his flock.
“I do not think it matters what breed you have, the conformation has to be right and they have to be good on their legs. This was really all I had to go on to begin with,” he says.
The family, including Ally’s wife Moyra and their five-year-old son, Ewan, are based near Dunblane, where they run the sheep on nine hectares (22 acres) next to Greystone Farm, which Moyra’s father, Miller McLaren ran before retirement. He is now on-hand to help Ally out with the Zwartbles flock, which currently numbers 35 ewes.
In a quest to build up a quality flock and sensing the depth of the gene pool in the UK was quite limited, Ally and fellow breeder Colin Rae, visited flocks in Holland in 2015 and imported 32 sheep.
He says: “There are no markets over there, so we had to travel round smallholdings looking at sheep. We selected them purely on conformation, buying ewe lambs having seen the parents and grandparents.” He says he is extremely selective with what he keeps to breed from.
“I am a businessman first, so the sheep have to pay for themselves. I prefer to keep to 35 ewes and keep the quality as high as possible. If I am not happy with them, then I do not keep them, it is as simple as that.”
Ewes are tupped naturally, but they are sponged beforehand to synchronise them, ensuring a tighter lambing period in early January. They are all lambed inside and then run in nearby vacant cattle courts, before going outside at the end of February/beginning of March.
“We were later putting them out this year, as we had five-foot snowdrifts causing havoc in March. Ewes are fed an 18 per cent roll and lamb very easily, so we do not normally have any problems,” Ally says.
The breed has requirements for certain markings and, because of this, Ally says he can select any ram lambs which may be used for breeding early on.
“If they do not have the right markings, then we know straight away they are not going to be any use. This year we have a select few tup lambs to sell at Stirling or Carlisle.”
Ally regularly sells gimmers and ewe lambs and has achieved a centre record for a ewe lamb at the Scottish Club sale at Stirling, with one off the Tardoes tup selling for 1,700gns. He has also had ewe lambs to 1,200gns at Carlisle and 700gns at Welshpool, a centre record there too.
From the beginning, he felt it would be necessary to show his sheep in order to get the flock name known, but he has also found he really enjoys this part too and has had plenty of success along the way.
Ally says: “I have met a lot of good people through showing sheep and the competition gets stronger every year, which is great for the breed. I think you need to know where you are aiming to get to with your flock, and going to shows gives an indication of the level you need to be at to win.”
The breed’s National Show is in the middle of a three-year stint at the Royal Highland Show, before moving to another venue in 2019. Ally took the lead there in 2016 with the home-bred gimmer Greystone Cranachan, by Greystone Alan and out of a home-bred ewe, and last year he returned to retain the title with a full sister, Greystone Destiny.
Ally says: “I have flushed the dam of those two gimmers in the hope of expanding this successful breeding line. I am delighted with how well we have done at Ingliston and I would love to win the show three years in a row, but as long as I am happy my stock are looking at their best, the rest is out of my hands.
“It is a great show and the chat and social side is always good too. It is a prestigious one to win, especially when the competition is so strong now.
“It is a big commitment, showing at the larger shows. The entries are expensive and I need to take a week off work, but I think it definitely helps promote the flock, so it is worth it in the long-term.”
Further afield, a Greystone-bred gimmer won the female championship at the Royal Welsh Show in 2015, and Ally says he hopes to exhibit at the Great Yorkshire Show in the future.
For now though, he is concentrating on keeping up his record at the Highland, for which he has seven entered, and on promoting the breed he has come to know and love over the past seven years.
“I think Zwartbles get a bit of a reputation as a hobby breed, but they are so much more. They make great crossing ewes and their maternal instinct is second to none. Put a terminal sire on a Zwartbles ewe and you will get tremendous, fast growing lambs with great conformation,” says Ally.