A far as scenery is concerned, there can be few more idyllic places to farm than above the banks of Loch Lomond, near the beautiful village of Luss. Lynsey Clark visits the Lennox family to find out what it is really like.
IF you asked the Lennox family if there is anywhere they would rather be, they would tell you absolutely not. However, farming in that part of Scotland, up to 686 metres (2,250ft), does not come without its challenges – the key one being the weather, with an annual rainfall of more than 2,540mm. That has risen from 1,780mm in the mid-1970s, when Bobby Lennox first began to follow in the footsteps of his father, taking on the running of Shantron Farm and neighbouring Shemore.
He says: “The weather has got wetter and wetter over the years and that really dictates what stock we have on the farm. Our ewe flock is now predominantly Blackfaces, and we have cut back the cow numbers from 50 to 20.”
In all, the Lennox family farms 1,500 hectares with Bobby and his wife Anne based at Shantron, and daughter Kay, her husband Dougie and their young children at Shemore. The farms, which run as one unit and sit on either side of a glen, have been tenanted by the family for several generations – they have had Shantron from as far back as 1750 and Shemore since 1915.
The 1,400-strong ewe flock previously included 250 crosses, but after losing some of the lower ground and moving all the sheep up the hill, Mr Lennox says it made sense to gradually phase out the crosses.
“We have found that the Blackfaces perform every bit as good as the crosses and for management purposes, it is far simpler for them all the be the one breed.”
The long family history on the farm has never deterred Mr Lennox from making changes to the sheep system when necessary, and a Young Farmers’ exchange to New Zealand in the late 1970s gave him a whole new perspective on how to best manage the flock.
He says: “We started recording all ewes to select for easy care traits, then in 1983 we picked what we thought were the best 400 to fully record with Signet. We quickly realised that half of that lot were nor performing nearly as well as we thought they were, so we culled the worst and worked from there. Provided the essentials were all correct – mouths and feet – then we relied entirely on figures to decide which ones to keep.”
Together with a few other farmers and with MLC, they set up a Sire Reference Scheme for Blackfaces, with the Scottish Agricultural College later becoming involved too. This included rams which had been recorded and were shown to be the highest performers.
Mr Lennox says: “We saw a big difference right from the start of using recorded rams and by the fourth year of doing it, we were able to stop buying rams at sales, as the home-bred ones were far outperforming any we could buy. We became a closed flock and were able to bring in other blood through the Sire Reference Scheme.”
The positive results saw the lambs reach bigger weights quicker and Mr Lennox says the ewes were noticeably performing better as mothers too.
“The year we started sire referencing, the average killing weight for all the Blackface lambs was 15.5kg, with 50 per cent achieving O grades and 50 per cent R grades. Five years later, they were averaging 17.5kg, with 80per cent R and U grades and 20 per cent O grades.
“The figures continue to improve each year, and our carcasses are now averaging 19.5kg.”
Mr Lennox says, from the eight traits that are measured, the main two that he looks at are mothering ability and scanning weight. He is not too concerned about eight-week weights, as he feels that good mothering ability has a higher impact on how well the lambs grow. He likes the ewes to be medium sized and not overly prolific, as they are limited to how many twins the farm can take.
Selecting which recorded rams to use is a stringent process at Shantron. The first pick of 75-100 (purely on figures) are then cut down to 50 after being inspected on looks. They are then scanned and cut back to 25 of the very best, which are used at home or sold on.
Mr Lennox says: “The past three or four years, we have seen a big increase in demand and enquiries for the tups, so people are definitely starting to think in a different way and are realising they need to be as economical as possible. Our lambs have always gone straight to slaughter and we have never been into pedigree breeding, so for us, it has never been about what the sheep look like, it is about how they perform. We have never had to follow fashions.
“It is a worrying time for sheep farming and we do not know how big an impact leaving Europe will have. So now, more than ever, people need their sheep to perform and I think that will lead to more and more people looking towards recording.”
The recorded flock size has remained at 400, which are identified with different tags, but run alongside the other 1,000 ewes. They are all managed in the same way, although they are separated for three weeks at tupping time, when the recorded ewes are put into single sire batches.
Tups are put out on November 28 and the ewes are all put back up to the hill before Christmas. Any tup lambs are taken out after 17 days and replaced with older rams as a safety measure.
Mr Lennox says: “The ewes all go back out to the open hill for the winter and after scanning at the beginning of March, those with twins or leaner ewes are kept on hill parks and topped up with silage in ring feeders and a little cake with the snacker, which is increased as it gets nearer to lambing. The singles go back out to the hill and receive no extra feeding.”
At lambing, from April 20, the twins and leaner ewes are brought in two days beforehand and put back out about 12 hours after lambing, while the singles lamb on the hill.
Ewe hoggs are wintered away in Lanarkshire for six months, and after lambs are weaned mid-August, those for fattening are also wintered away until January, when they are brought home to be finished in sheds and sold to Scotbeef in February/March. The family hopes for better prices this coming year, as last year’s average of £70 per lamb was back from £90 two years earlier.
The beef herd, made up of Blue Grey cross Salers and Shorthorn crosses, are all put to the Charolais bull, calving from the end of May, with calves sold as stores at 15-months, having been wintered inside the first year and put back out to grass the following summer.
Mr Lennox says: “We have cut the cattle numbers back to a minimum, but they are a very useful management tool for the grass and help get rid of the roughage on the hill over the winter. The wet ground always throws up problems for us, with the cattle and sheep, but we have been doing more and more rotational grazing, which has definitely helped.
“The rainfall can also mean that there are many times of the year when it is impossible to take machinery into the fields. We were a month late getting our first cut of silage this year, and have still to get the second cut.”
Despite these challenges, the Lennoxes are a positive bunch, and feel lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country. It is a popular area for tourists and Mrs Lennox makes the most of this by running a bed and breakfast business from the farm cottage, with Kay also renting out a holiday cottage at Shemore, as well as running a cleaning business. With such a big expanse of land, gathering the flock is a mighty task, and extra help is brought in at these times – including Kay’s twin brother Allan and their sister Gill, who often coincide their work holidays with times they can come back and help out on the family farm.
Mr Lennox, who is current president of the Scottish Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs, is a huge advocate of the benefits of promoting farming to the public. The family’s stint on the BBC 2 series, This Farming Life, was well received last year and helped show the real ups and downs of hill farming. He has also been involved with the Royal Highland Education Trust since its beginning.
He says: “I think it is so important to educate children about farming and show them where their food comes from – and to allow them the chance to visit working farms. I have found that visits are just as beneficial for the teachers and parents too, giving them a better understanding of farming life. We need the public to care about where their food comes from if we are to survive as an industry.”