Aberdeenshire pedigree sheep breeder Robbie Wilson has enjoyed plenty of success in the show and sale ring over the years, and this month will take on the task of judging the sheep inter-breed at the Royal Welsh Show. Katrina Macarthur reports...
As a well-known face across the UK and Ireland for producing some of the lead prices at premier sales, Robbie Wilson’s experience with pedigree sheep goes back a long way.
And he says is fortunate that he has been able to work with some of the best bloodlines in the Suffolk and Texel breeds.
Initially, Mr Wilson worked from 1981 to 1991 for the Mair family’s Muiresk Suffolk flock at Kinnermit, Turriff, before taking on the tenancy at the nearby North Dorlaithers.
He went on to establish his own Strathisla Suffolk flock with foundation females from Muiresk and Glenisla, and enjoyed numerous show wins, including five championships at the Royal Highland
The flock secured many leading prices and averages at sales across the country, with a top price of 48,000gns achieved at Edinburgh in 2007 for the tup lamb Strathisla Dylan Thomas. Many other tup lambs have sold above the 10,000gns bracket, including two at 25,000gns, while Strathisla females peaked at 12,000gns twice.
Alongside the running of his Suffolk flock, Mr Wilson worked for the late Margaret Lyon, who established the Milnbank Texel flock with her husband Alan.
Due to ill health, Mr Wilson purchased the 30-ewe flock from Mrs Lyon in August 2010, which included top bloodlines and the best of sires in the Texel breed.
Mr Wilson says: “When I took on the Milnbank flock, I was buying the very best of genetics in the Texel breed at that time.
“The flock included top quality females which were often bought at big money, and Mrs Lyon usually had a third share in leading stock tups.”
Mr Wilson continued to strengthen the Milnbank flock when he purchased the 45,000gns Glenside Razzle Dazzle with Jim Innes of the Strathbogie flock, Huntly.
Razzle Dazzle certainly paid his way, as his first five sons averaged £10,300 at Lanark in 2011, with a top price of 25,000gns paid for Milnbank Special One.
In 2013, the flock achieved its best price to date of 40,000gns for a son of the 60,000gns Teiglum Tornado, Milnbank Ur The Boy.
In 2013, Mr Wilson decided to focus on the Texels and dispersed his Strathisla Suffolk flock at Borderway Mart, Carlisle, and attracted buyers from across the UK, Ireland and Europe.
“The Suffolks were a huge success for me, but it was hard to commit time to both breeds,” he says.
“I knew I could have a long-term future with the Texel breed. There will always be a demand for the white face in the sheep industry and the Texel has become the number one sire for commercial flocks across the country, producing vigorous lambs which are quick to suckle.
“The Texel is an easy managed breed and one of its qualities at pedigree level is that it does not require dressing before shows and sales. You cannot beat the wool quality on a Texel.”
At present, the Milnbank flock numbers 60 females and Mr Wilson, along with his daughter Rachel, who works full-time in the oil industry, continue to run an intensive ET programme.
They use home-bred recipients from the 400 commercial ewe flock of Mules, Suffolk crosses and Lleyn cross Suffolk Mules.
Lambing starts in mid-February, with the pedigree females and the first batch of ewes carrying embryo lambs.
The next batch of embryos lamb in late March. Pure ewes which are flushed, lamb in April, along with the commercial ewes which breed replacements.
Mr Wilson runs a strict culling policy and only selects replacements which are correct and have been bred from good families.
He selects on skin and carcase, and a female with a ‘bonny, sweet head’.
Any female which causes difficulty at lambing is down the road, but this seldom happens, with Mr Wilson pointing out they only had two caesarean sections during lambing this year and that was down to lambs coming backwards.
From late August onwards, the Wilsons spend many days away selling tup lambs at premier society sales including Lanark, Worcester and Carlisle, as well as Kelso ram sales and local tup sales at Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre and United Auctions, Huntly.
“We introduce creep feed to the lambs at six weeks old and then they are off the creep at 12 weeks,” Mr Wilson says.
“Good ewes will milk well for 16 weeks, so we do not tend to wean early. We weaned the first of our lambs this year the week after the Royal Highland Show.”
While the Milnbank flock has produced some great averages for tup lambs and many sales above 10,000gns, females have sold equally well both privately and through the auction ring.
About 100 gimmers are sold off the farm every year, with sales as far north as Shetland and across to Italy.
Daughters of Glenside Razzle Dazzle have also proved popular, with an 18,000gns sale achieved at Carlisle in 2012, while a gimmer by Strathbogie Yes Sir made 16,000gns at Worcester in 2018.
The flock stood Texel champion at the Royal Highland Show for the first time in 2017 with a gimmer by the 16,000gns Glenside Willy Nilly, which later sold in a private deal for 20,000gns to Robert Jones.
Ewes at Milnbank usually breed four or five crops of lambs before being sold on to new homes and Mr Wilson says they are in strong demand up and down the country.
“I like to sell older ewes when they are still fresh so that repeat buyers have a chance to use them for flushing,” he says.
“About 130 to 140 ewe lambs are kept on as gimmers, with 20 to 25 retained in the flock. Around 15 to 20 old ewes are sold each year.”
Progeny which is not suitable for breeding is finished off grass and sold direct to Woodhead Brothers, Turriff, while a number are sold at Thainstone.
This year, store hoggs sold to £600 and £500 per head to producers as far north as Shetland and down into Lancashire.
Like most pedigree flocks, showing at local shows and the Royal Highland has become a great shop window for the flock, as has the Milnbank Texels Facebook page is regularly updated.
Mr Wilson has scooped a number of championships at shows in Aberdeenshire over the years including Echt, New Deer and Turriff, and is often at the top end of the line-up in big classes at the Highland.
This year’s Highland was another successful one for the Milnbank flock as a gimmer by the €17,000 (£15,270) Greenstar Alfie stood second prize to the champion Texel and inter-breed sheep champion.
Speaking ahead of his upcoming judging at the Royal Welsh, Mr Wilson says: “I have had the pleasure of judging at many shows including the Suffolks and Texels at the Balmoral Show, but this is definitely my biggest job yet.
“I am really looking forward to seeing the variations of different breeds and what other breeders have produced.”