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Over the Crow Road
by Eilidh MacPherson
Buying and running a farm at 23 years old is a young farmer’s dream – one that was reality for Ewen Macmillan, Lurg, Fintry. Seventeen years on he is a well respected Blackface Breeder, one of the leading lights, commanding impressive prices for both breeding males and females, in an industry, which is, by no means, the easiest to crack.
Brought up on Arisaig Estate, in Lochaber, where his father and his grandfather before him managed, Ewen shepherded from the age of 16. “It was a bit of a North type bargain basement, but we used to go to Corpach and top the sale with cast ewes. It was a rough hill flock and latterly we crossed with Cheviots,” said Ewen, who is now working with a different kind of Blackie.
Ms Beacher owned Arisaig Estate from his grandfather’s time. “She left it to us before she died and said to sell and buy a good farm business as the only way forward there was tourism and we had no interest in caravans and chalets. The 10000 acre Estate now carries 300 ewes and extra income is derived from Oyster and Mussel farming.”
“We looked at quite a few places before I came here in November 1993 at the age of 23. I felt mature and able to take on the world as my father went back up to Arisaig and left me to get on with it and make it pay.
“In the mid 1990’s everywhere was paying with sheep. Lurg had 1700 ewes – 1300 Blackfaces and 400 mules, which I reduced to 1400 within nine months, selling off the Mules.”
Half of the Blackie ewes were then covered by Blue Faced Leicesters for Mule Ewe lamb production. “We had variation. If I knew then what I know now, things would have been done differently, but going through that process I learnt.”
Ewen started to buy cast ewes and gimmers from Claddich and Balliemeanoch initially and then Connachan. “I like buying in ewes. It is less of a gamble in some ways to spend £3-4000 on a pen of good ewes rather than spend that money on a tup – as at least some of the ewes will breed well. I paid £150 /hd for ewes from Claddich one year, the top price.”
Over the years Ewen has also bought from Elmscleuch, Dalchirla, Mitchellhill, Nunnerie, Auchloy and Midlock.
At Stirling tup sale one year, Ewen’s shepherd and right hand man – Alec Steedman – was in one ring selling Lurg shearlings for £50, while Ewen purchased a Connachan ram at £2000. It proved a sound investment and the start of good bloodlines and dear prices for 5-year-old cast ewes.
Since £2000 Connachan made a noticeable difference on the female line at Lurg, other significant sires were a quarter share of £15000 Midlock and a half share of the Apprentice, purchased privately.
“Last year’s purchase of £22000 Connachan and a share of £44000 Highland Storm are both looking promising at the moment, with four or five lambs going to be used at home. Three £22000 lambs will be sold at Stirling.
“Over the past six or seven years a lot of homebred tups have been doing for me – especially noticeable when selling the cast ewes as two thirds of the top pen are off Lurg bred tups.”
An £800 Crookston ram of Dalchirla origins also left his stamp, with sons selling to £7000 and £4500.
A home bred tup – The Transformer – used for six seasons, sold at Dalmally to Northern Ireland for £3500, bred exceptionally well, with several ewes reaching £1500 at Lanark. “He kicked off a lot of female lines,” said Ewen.
“Archie McGregor, Allanfauld kindly let me put two ewes to the Stag – an £8000 Connachan tup. I got a particularly good ewe out of one and put it to a £5500 Tigh na Blair ram – she produced the Transformer.”
Tup lambs are run with 40 ewes, while shearlings, if owned outright are presented with 50 -100 females. So many sires are now shared; “I quite enjoy buying half a tup as it is less of a gamble, if the tup doesn’t please you in his breeding. I would almost now set out to buy half a tup as it doesn’t upset my system as I can have him for one turn.”
In 2000 Ewen made a few management decisions to improve profitability on his hill property. ‘With regret,’ as Sir Alan Sugar says, on the Apprentice show, he had to let Alec Steedman – ‘an exceptionally good man’ – go and he slashed the number of ewes to 850, a more manageable number for a one-man outfit. The direct meat selling operation was also cut when Alex left, as it was a time consuming exercise.
Ewen also decided to winter the hoggs at home that year – a decision he thanked his lucky stars for, as the farm he normally sent the hoggs off for wintering was the first to be taken out with Foot and Mouth.
Ewen has seen an increase in profit margins – the shepherd’s house now brings in a rental each month, with fewer ewes the feeding bill is lower and the stock is healthier.
His breeding stock is more valuable to sell. Last year 15 tups sold averaged £1470 and 213 cast ewes and gimmers averaged £118. Ewen wishes that more breeders would support the spring gimmer sale in Lanark as selling 4 or 5 in lamb gimmers and /or ewes pays his feed bill for the winter.
Feeding only beet pulp pellets has totally eradicated any incidences of twin lamb disease, while using a Zinc Sulphate footbath every time the sheep went through the yards over a ten-year period has wiped out any foot problems.
Ewen has also noted that since wintering the hoggs at home he has less broken mouths when it comes to selling the cast ewes.
"I have an a confession. For the past four years I’ve been putting a Swale top over the bottom 200 ewes and sell 100 Swale x Blackface gimmers each year.
“I worked with a Suffolk before then, but it wasn’t suiting the Blackface job. With the Swale the ewes are still fresh at 5 as they are not so sore on them.”
All lambs are left entire on this Crow Road holding. “The last number of years the emphasis has been on size – it is not the be all and end all. The important thing is to breed lambs that are heavy at the end of the summer. A good wee lamb with good hair and a milky mother can produce twins – you don’t need a big ewe to have a big lamb. I’ve been selling twins at 37kgs straight off their mothers, making £57.35 through the UA Euro Weigh and Pay.”
By the end of September he expects to have 75-80% of the tup lambs, not destined for the tup sales, away and half the cross Swales.
Feeding of tups all summer is another bone of contention for this Highlander. “It is a road to ruin. If they are expected to go up the West coast and do the job, breeders shouldn’t be feeding.
In the past 20 years not many young people have entered the Blackface sheep world and made a good go of it. For any youngsters starting out in sheep farming, Ewen says that it is important to be working with a certain kind of sheep that suits the farm. “The kind I’m working with now help make my life easy and help with the profit margin.”
Lambing will come early this year at Lurg as Lousie, Ewen’s wife has scanned a single, due in January.
Farmer: Ewen Macmillan
Location: Fintry, Stirling
Area: 1615 acres owned
Height: 500 - 1800 feet
Sheep: 1100 Blackface ewes
Labour: Ewen, assistance when required