A young farmer who is restocking his family’s Scottish upland farm with Lleyn breeding ewes is following his father’s lead by tupping ewe lambs with a Southdown.
Cocklaw Farm, a 670-acre holding at Cockburnspath, Berwickshire, at one time carried 1500 ewes but the flock was dispersed when the McCreath family chose to concentrate their farming enterprise on growing malting barley.
Sheep didn’t disappear from the farm because some of the land was let out for grazing and this arrangement continued until Scott McCreath decided the time was right for the family to reestablish a flock of their own.
The goal was to create a top-quality flock so the first breeding ewes he bought in 2013 were two first prize pens at sales in Stirling and Carlisle.
“Sheep are expensive to buy but we wanted the best sheep for the foundation flock,’’ explains Scott, who farms with his father, Douglas, brother, James, and wife, Keisha.
He chose Lleyns because of their ability to produce lambs quickly off grass in an upland situation.
Ewes are tupped to a pure Lleyn or a Texel but Scott wanted to use another breed on the ewe lambs.
At Kelso two years ago, he was buying tups for the ewes when his eye was drawn to a Southdown ram entered in the sale by Scarborough breeder Anthony Glaves. “At that point I remembered seeing Southdowns on our farm because dad used to use them on all his Mule hogs. I thought I would buy one to try it out.’’
That ram has since tupped 50 ewe lambs a season. “It is no bother for him, he could easily tup more than 50,’’ says Scott.
Delighted with the performance
He is delighted with its performance. “As long as he has got teeth and can walk he isn’t going anywhere, if he is fit he will be staying.’’
Scott breeds from ewe lambs because he believes every animal on the farm must earn its keep. “The ewe lambs are big enough and we don’t want massive ewes in the flock so we are happy to breed from them. If we didn’t tup them at this point they would be on the farm for a year, eating grass, with no purpose.’’
The Southdown is turned in with the ewe lambs on November 5th – last year the group numbered 80 – and he remains with the group for 30 days. “We only tup the first 50, the rest run on as yearlings so they will never know the joy of a Southdown!’’ Scott laughs.
Ewe lambs are tupped at body condition score 2.5 – 3 and they carry that condition right through to weaning. Scott says they don’t lose condition, even when they have lambs at foot. “That goes for the hogs too.’’
This year the ewe lambs tupped to the Southdown scanned at 127% and started lambing in mid-April. The Lleyn ewes, which scanned at 198%, lambed during the same period.
The farm is exposed to north easterly winds that blow in from the North Sea so later lambing
allows the McCreaths to maximise production from grass.
Lambing takes place indoors but ewes and lambs are turned out to grass quickly. “They are not in the shed for long,’’ says Scott. “If a ewe lambs in the morning and the weather is good she will be turned out that afternoon or the following morning. Ideally we would prefer to lamb outside but housing gives us more control.’’
At housing, singles are fed haylage only while the twins and the triplet-carrying ewes, which are run as one group, are supplemented with 0.5kg of an 18% protein ewe roll a month before they give birth.
Grass is cheap…the lambs never get any feed
“Grass is cheap, much cheaper than feed, so once the ewes are turned out they don’t get any
supplementary feed and the lambs never get any feed at all unless they are kept as stores,’’ Scott explains.
As stores, they receive 0.5kg from February 1st for three weeks, until they finish.
The lambs shoot out
One of the joys of tupping with a Southdown is lambing ease, Scott reports. “The Southdown doesn’t look like a traditional easy lambing terminal sire but that is definitely not the case, the lambs are wedge-shaped and just shoot out.
“They are very easily born. The mother’s just spit the lambs out and they are quick on their feet.’’
And the Southdown keeps on giving because growth is phenomenal, he adds. “The Southdowns are the first lambs away even though they have been born to hogs.
“We store a few to sell in January and February and we find that they don’t shoot away and get leggy like other breeds.’’
Scott had spent time working and travelling in New Zealand and was aware that Southdowns were commonplace among flocks. “The New Zealanders like the Southdowns because they are not soft, they are not slow and their back ends stay clean.’’
His ewe lambs are first to wean, when their offspring are 9-10 weeks old; the ewes follow from there, after their lambs have been dosed for nematodirus.
Weaning is co-ordinated with hay and silage harvesting to allow lambs to finish on the
The Southdown lambs finish at 30-40kg in September and October or at 45-55kg in January and February.
Lambs are hardy and fast growing and hold their condition, says Scott. “They don’t go back, they hold their condition even until February. They don’t shoot away to become a 80kg carcass.’’
He sells all the lambs live through Harrison and Hetherington at St Boswells, Melrose.
Strong demand for Southdown sired lambs
There is strong demand for lambs produced by the Southdown, he says. “They are really sought after right now. Compared to a Lleyn lamb they have much better body conformation, you get a much better product from the Southdown, a better commercial lamb.
“Because we don’t sell direct to an abattoir we don’t know their grades but we have hung a few up and they have made Rs and Us.’’
The purpose of the Lleyn is to breed replacements, Scott explains. “They are the ultimate mother ewe.’’
He also produces pedigree tups, to sell and use on his own flock.
Ewe numbers are increasing year on year – in the first year there were 100 and now there are 180. Scott’s target is to build numbers back up to 1500 but admits it won’t be a quick process because he has a rigorous culling policy. “I would have more sheep if I wasn’t so hard on them,’’ he accepts.
Any animal that prolapses is culled as are those with recurring foot problems. The first case of lameness is treated but is it recurs the animal is not used to breed replacements. On the third occasion, the ewe is culled.
Rigorous health policy pays dividends
It is tough being an underperforming sheep at Cocklaw. “We cull for teeth and anything that has had a difficult lambing is removed from the flock.
You don’t want to be a sheep here unless you are a good sheep!’’ Scott admits. “You don’t get to be an old sheep here unless you are producing the goods. I am in the business
of breeding so I might as well be breeding good ones. I don’t want to carry passengers that are not performing.’’
But a ewe lamb that only produces a single lamb is spared. “It doesn’t seem fair to cull them for having one lamb,’’ concedes Scott, showing his softer side.
Lameness is treated with long acting antibiotics on a case by case basis. “We don’t get foot rot or CODD, just some cases of scald, so we don’t footbath or trim,’’ says Scott.
The number of sheep with scald has been higher than normal this year because of abnormally wet conditions. “The ground has been wet and muddy but luckily we are a dry farm. The land is mostly on the hill, it is the farms that are below us that get the worst of the rain.’’
Scott uses faecal egg counts (FEC) to establish which lambs need worming. “The lambs get wormed for nematodirus and are then wormed on a case by case basis. We have the same policy for fluke.’’
Thin ewes are tested and if they test positive they are wormed. The fate of those that test negative is sealed, Scott says. “If they don’t have worms they are culled for being thin.’’
Lambs are vaccinated for pasteurellosis pneumonia and clostridial diseases and the dose is repeated four weeks later, at the same time as ewes get their booster. At the same time, the sheep get a trace element bolus containing copper, selenium, iodine and cobalt. “Our land is deficient in copper so we bolus the ewes in February and the lambs when they are weaned,’’ says Scott.
The farm has re-entered sheep production at a time when Brexit has created an unknown future for the sector. The uncertainty is a worry for Scott but he is resolutely confident that there will be a good future, but only for those businesses that take efficiency seriously.
“As an industry we are going to have to be more efficient with treatments, lameness, everything.
A lot of farmers keep sheep with very bad feet just for the sake of having that sheep but that isn’t doing them or anyone else any favours.’’
And, Scott adds, it is vital to deliver on specification. “We have to produce lambs that
meet specifications, there is no excuse for not delivering on that.’’