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From Black & White Cows to Black & White Sheep
by Eilidh MacPherson
Matthew Simpson of Tardoes Farm, Kilmarnock, is one of the numerous Scottish farmers to exit the dairy industry in the past ten years.
“I felt you had to either get bigger or get out and as I was only milking 70 cows and had no one to follow me in the business – so I opted out.”
Since Matthew quit, the amount of dairy farms in the immediate area has drastically reduced.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make, as I’d spent my lifetime dairying, initially on the family farm – Tardoes – at Muirkirk, which was sold for opencast and then on my own here at Kilmarnock.”
Selling his herd of Holstein Friesians, 100 acres of the 150 acre holding and the farm buildings for development, cleared Matthew’s debt and his conscious.
He took on a job milking cows at Townhead of Lamberton as, “it would have been a big void if I hadn’t. It enables me to do anything I want with my time in the middle of the day.”
Matthew decided that cows were too much work so he looked at all kinds of different breeds of sheep but with an affinity to black and white animals, the striking Zwartbles took his eye.
Dairy farmers from the Freisland region of Holland have kept Zwartbles Sheep, since the beginning of the last century. Due to changes in farming practices numbers of Zwartbles in Holland became severely reduced until the breed was adopted by the Dutch Rare Breed Survival Trust in the mid-1970s. Later, in 1985, a group of breeders in Holland started a 'Flock Book' and the initiative has gone from strength to strength!
In 2000, Zwartbles were more or less considered a rare breed in the UK, so Matthew made his first purchases at a Rare Breed sale at Carlisle and then bought some privately in-lamb.
He now runs 20 Zwartbles as a hobby on 25 acres and the rents the remaining 25 acres out to the dairy farms he milks for.
“The Zwartbles Sheep Association was established in the UK in 1995 and there are now 236 registered Zwartbles flocks – a total of about 5285 sheep. There are now 80-90 breeders in Scotland and over 600 in the UK altogether. United Auctions, in Stirling, put on a Multi-breed sale in September last year with a Zwartbles entry of 100+. The main sale at Carlisle at the end of August was becoming too big.”
Matthew lambs in January and February for the showing season. “More and more shows are having classes for Zwartbles so I might go to Moffat this year on the 28th August,” said Matthew, who is judging the inaugural class at Langholm on 24th September. Great Eccelston, Penrith and Angelsey are the other dates on Matthew’s judging calendar this year.
“The Zwartbles are the feature breed at the Anglesey Show this year, so it is a great honour to be asked to judge there.”
As well as the usual good feet, legs and conformation, ideal markings, such as – a complete facial blaze, a white tip to the tail, two to four white socks and an undocked tail come into the Zwartbles equation.
Matthew has an army of willing helpers for the show circuit, in the shape of his nieces and nephews. Andrew Simpson (9) came third in the Young Handlers class at the Royal Highland Show, showing Llepan Rowlands, a Zwartbles tup purchased in Wales, pictured below left.
Last year the Simpsons lifted Reserve Male Champion at the Highland following on from the Female Reserve the year before.
“You can get very tall sheep with no cover or very small and I’m trying to breed something in the middle of the road. It’s quite akin to an extreme Holstein, tall and sharp with more milk and a small Friesian with more shape,” explained Matthew, from a dairy farmer’s perspective.
Any lambs not making the grade for ram production are sold through the live market, mainly to butchers, between 42 to 53kgs at the end of May/ beginning of June. This year a top of £98 was achieved.
“Zwartbles are a very milky, prolific breed, which are becoming popular for crossing with hill sheep. They are crossed onto Cheviots, Blackies or Swales and the resulting females are covered with Terminal sires. The 2nd cross are good fat lambs.
“A good framed Zwartbles is required for the crossing niche,” commented Matthew, who has sold a number of tups to hill farms.
Of the four in-lamb sales to date at Carlisle, Tardoes has collected the champion ticket on all four occasions and sold to a top of 1000gns last year.
When Matthew set out breeding a few Zwartbles as a hobby, he never dreamt he would become so involved in the breed or the Society, of which he is currently Treasurer.
Matthew has no regrets, having gone out of dairying. He has the best of both worlds – still milking cows every day but has plenty free time to show his beloved Zwartbles sheep.
Farmer: Matthew Smith
Area: 50 acres owned, rents 25 acres out
Stock: 20 Zwartbles ewes
Income: Milks twice a day