Brother and sister duo Iain and Judith Barbour, Annan, are successfully making money out of potatoes and Suffolks. Lynsey Clark reports.
Despite the pressures of running a successful seed potato enterprise, the Barbour family remains dedicated to its pedigree Suffolk flock – and the passion for showing has seen the champion ticket at the Royal Highland Show lifted by them for the past two years.
Those victories were made all the sweeter by the fact it was the same home-bred ewe, Eva Jane, which won on both occasions, fulfilling a long-held ambition for brother and sister Iain and Judith Barbour.
Their first experience of the breed was in the late 1980s, when their parents Robert and Margaret bought them a Suffolk cross pet lamb each.
Iain says: “In those days, our grandparents were at Rosefield Farm, Annan, where the potato operation is still based, and when we bought nearby Beechgrove Farm, in the late 1980s, we decided to get some sheep to put on it.
“Dad is the third-generation to run the family potato business, but he had no previous experience with livestock. The only background we had was Mum’s father had a pedigree South Down flock, so she had some knowledge on the subject.
A ram lamb by Solwaybank Solario
The show team: a ewe lamb by Solywaybank Solario; a gimmer by Solwaybank Thunderbolt; and a ewe by carragh
“This was enough to guide me towards the Suffolk breed when I was picking out which sheep I liked at Dalston Show in 1990.”
After settling on a breed, the Barbours bought their first pure Suffolk females from local breeder John Clark, of the Brownmoor flock, followed by a tup from Touxhill. The numbers grew from there, with several gimmers purchased at in-lamb sales in the mid-1990s.
The first and probably most successful of those was a Muiresk gimmer, L26, bought in 1993 for 2,600gns. The best breeding lines in the flock today can be traced back to her, Iain says.
“She lasted for five crops and bred tremendously well for us, with most of our best sheep going back to her, including tups at 36,000gns and 17,000gns. Unfortunately, she existed in the pre-flushing days.”
As the pedigree sheep flock grew in numbers, Iain’s young sister Judith was keen to establish her own flock, which she founded under the Ewebank prefix in 1996.
She says her best buy in the early days was a ewe lamb, W30, purchased for 4,000gns, from Neil Benzie’s Meikleson flock in 1999, after it had been placed inter-breed champion at Turriff Show.
“We won a lot of shows with her as a gimmer in summer 2000 and she stood first at the Highland that year too. Being only 15 at the time, it was a great achievement and something I will always remember. She turned into a prolific breeding ewe, producing a lot of successful show sheep.”
Iain and Judith Barbour amalgamated their flocks into one in 2013
Some of the ram lambs by Solwaybank Goldfinger, Solwaybank Solario and Rhaeadr Rastafari
The most memorable daughter from W30 was one named Poppy, which stood inter-breed sheep champion at the Great Yorkshire Show and reserve inter-breed at the Royal Show in 2006. It is one of several show-winning females which have been flushed over the years to help build up a solid foundation of ewes.
Iain says: “We started flushing in 2000 and flushed between six and eight ewes per year until 2009. By then, we felt we had the flock to a type we wanted and there was no need to keep continually flushing females, which we now only do occasionally.”
In 2013, Iain and Judith amalgamated the flocks into one, which now runs under the Solwaybank prefix. They jointly manage the 80 ewes and 45 gimmers, which are all AI’d in July and set to lamb between December 15 and 21.
This lambing date has been brought forward in recent years for management purposes, so it does not clash with the busy potato period, says Iain.
“At the end of December and throughout January and February, we are hectic with potatoes, which we are all involved in. We supply garden centres, allotment societies and farmers with seed potatoes and our online business is growing all the time too. We have about 10 weeks in which to do a year’s worth of business.
“Because of this, we have had to shift lambing to earlier in December, as it would be pointless lambing in March for the pedigree market.
The rest of the year works out fine for us as shows and sales are during the quieter time and by the time potato lifting comes, the sale season is usually finished.”
Some of the most successful rams bought at sales over the years include Muiresk Powerpacker, purchased in 1996 for 13,000gns. His daughters bred particularly well, with a later addition, Glenisla Grimaldi, bought for 7,500gns in 2000.
More recently, Rhaeadr Rastafari was bought for 12,000gns at the Scottish sale at Edinburgh, and left his mark on the flock, producing the Royal Highland Show champion, Eva Jane, and the 2013 national sale champion Solwaybank Champion, which sold for 17,000gns.
Furthermore, a home-bred Rastafari son, Solwaybank Skyfall, was kept for use in the flock and managed to breed the Barbours’ dearest lamb to-date, Solwaybank Major, which sold for 36,000gns in 2013 at Stirling.
Skyfall also won sire of the year in 2013, making it a year to remember for the family.
When it comes to selecting a stock tup, Iain believes the back-end is the best place to start. He says: “A stock tup has to have a good carcase and top line. If it has these, you are halfway there.
“Our aim is all the tup lambs we sell should be capable of being sold as commercial tups. We strive for a consistent batch and if some of them make big money to a pedigree buyer, it is a bonus.
“We sell at Shrewsbury, Stirling, Carlisle and Kelso, followed by a late commercial sale at Carlisle.”
And while the Barbours have never been shy of spending big to get the sheep they want – going to 62,000gns for Cairness Castello – they say it is not always the most expensive sheep which breed the best.
“When we started out, we had a huge amount to learn and had no experience of breeding sheep. It has taken us 20 years to get a type in the flock we are happy with. If we were starting again, I would definitely buy from one flock instead of single purchases from several flocks, which makes it hard to breed a consistent type.
“For many years, the potatoes subsidised the sheep, which were really started as a hobby, but they are now paying their own way.”
The whole family – including Iain and Judith’s brother Stuart – is involved in running the seed potato business, and each of them now has their own family responsibilities.
With Iain and his wife Carla looking after three young children, Stuart marrying his wife Lisa last year and Judith due to be married to a local beef and sheep farmer Adam Nelson in August, the Barbours do not have time to exhibit at as many shows as they once did.
They now tend to concentrate on pedigree sales and the Royal Highland Show, at which they have a ewe, a gimmer, a ewe lamb and a ram lamb entered for this year.
Responsibility for sheep at Ingliston mainly falls to Margaret and Judith, who stay through in a caravan for the duration.
Judith says: “We normally pick sheep out a good eight weeks before the show and clip them to try and show them with as little wool as possible. The Highland is the show everyone wants to win and it was the best feeling in the world for us to do twice, especially with our home-bred sheep.
“It takes a lot of time and effort to show sheep, but for us, it has definitely been worth it.
It is great publicity and gets the flock recognised, but it is also a brilliant social occasion. Without a doubt, the Royal Highland Show is the highlight of our year and this year we are proud to have been invited to sponsor the overall sheep inter-breed championship.”