Royal Highland Show Preview
Duo prove they have the winning combination
With four Royal Highland Show sheep inter-breed titles already under their belt North Country Cheviot breeders, Jim and Willie Thomson, are looking forward to this year’s show. Claire Powell finds out more.
The father and son duo of Jim and Willie Thomson farm amidst the hills south of Kelso, in the Scottish Borders, a few miles from where Scotland meets the English county of Northumberland.
All the Thomson’s sheep are North Country Cheviots, with hill-type ewes running on the higher ground, and the slightly bigger framed, park-type on lower slopes.
Jim, a former president of the North Country Cheviot Sheep Society, runs 1,100 ewes on the 560-hectare (1,400-acre) Kelsocleugh, at the head of the Bowmont Valley.
Son Willie is the fourth Thomson generation to farm at Hownam Grange, now home to himself, wife Laura and their two daughters - Beth and Georgia.
Hownam Grange is the base for Willie’s 700ha (1,750-acre) livestock farming enterprise based on 1,400 ewes and 70 home-bred commercial cows, plus four
recently purchased pedigree Limousins, which are the foundation of the Hownam Grange herd.
- Farmed by Jim Thomson
- 560-hectare (1,400-acre)
- 1,100 North County Cheviot ewes
- Classified LFA
- Farmed by Willie Thomson and home to himself, wife Laura and children Beth and Georgia
- 700-hectare (1,750-acre)
- 1,400 North County Cheviot ewes, 70 home-bred commercial cows and four pedigree Limousins
- One flat field with the rest hill rising to 1,500ft
All the land farmed by the Thomsons is classified Less Favoured Area and while the Kale Water flows through the one flat field at Hownam Grange the rest of the farm is hill, rising to 1,500 feet at the peak of Hownam Law.
The first Hownam Grange North Country Cheviot Royal Highland inter-breed championship was won in 1998, with Hownam Grange Matilda, a home-bred gimmer.
Nine years later the Thomsons began an incredible run of Royal Highland sheep interbreed successes, winning three of the last four - in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
This record is made all the more impressive by the fact in 2001, the Thomsons gave up all their sheep in a 3km firebreak foot-and-mouth disease cull. The cattle were spared.
“There was 60 years of breeding in our flock, which was wiped out in six hours,” says Willie.
When the going got tough, the tough Thomsons got going and the night the family found out their sheep would be culled Jim telephoned a North Country Cheviot breeder at Rothbury, in Northumberland who wanted to sell his flock in its entirety.
“It was great knowing once we were able to re-stock, there were a thousand hill ewes in the pipe-line,” says Willie.
A flock of Scotch Mules utilised the lower ground until the park-type flock could be re-built.
“We contacted a number of breeders we had sold sheep to, to see if they would sell some back, to recover some of our own breeding and every one of them said gladly,” says Willie.
“In 2000 we had sold 100 mixed age females to an auctioneer in the English midlands. Foot-and-mouth had wrecked his own plans, and in 2001 he was changing his job and giving up his land, so we were able to buy all the sheep back, a huge boost to re-stocking with our own bloodlines.”
Included in the females bought back was the dam of Hownam Grange Little Miss Magic. As a three-crop ewe Little Miss Magic beat every single sheep at the 2007 Royal Highland Show, to scoop the inter-breed. The following day she teamed up with the male North Country Cheviot champion - Allanshaws Amarillo - from Rockie Runciman of Galashiels, to win the pairs inter-breed championship.
Little Miss Magic proved she was a breeder as well as a looker. Her four sons grossed £9,000, including a set of triplets which sold for £4,500, £3,500 and £600.
“Magic was an amazing sheep to show, she was really arrogant,” says Willie. “Once in the show ring, her personality changed. She knew what was going on and was determined to win. As the judge came round I would whisper to her and she really switched on and did her utmost to look her best - she would brace herself, stiffen her neck, holding her head high with her ears on full beam.”
Willie says it was this ‘look at me’ human attention seeking which resulted in Magic being in the Hownam Grange show team, albeit as a latecomer.
“We like to spot sheep with some show potential as lambs. As lambs and hoggs, they get a bit of special attention in the ‘show field’. As they get older, we reduce the numbers to what we think are the best.”
Magic had not received this special treatment as a youngster. “I hand clipped her in 2005, after her first lambing and thought ‘I like the look of you’ and popped her into the show field,” says Willie.
The following year Magic was North Country Cheviot breed champion at the English Royal Show and reserve supreme sheep at the Great Yorkshire.
At the 2008 Royal Highland, the father and son team won a unique double, clinching the supreme championships in both the park and hill type North Country Cheviot sections with females - a gimmer and a two-crop ewe.
The park gimmer - Hownam Grange My Girl went on to give the Thomsons their second inter-breed championship in two years.
In 2009 their best of a clutch of impressive rosettes, was the reserve supreme hill-type championship with a three-shear ram.
By last year, the Thomsons were back to their inter-breed winning form, with their park-type supreme champion, the gimmer Hownam Grange Fantastic. This sheep not only won the show’s top sheep accolade for the third time in four years for the Thomsons, but also the Queens Cup, the highest trophy in the livestock classes, awarded to the supreme animal in a different section each year.
This coveted piece of silverware was presented by Her Majesty the Queen in 1960, to mark her presidency of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland.
Show ring glamour and glory is fine, but the Thomson’s North Country Cheviots are also the economic backbone to their farming and livelihood.
“While it’s good to sell tups for high prices, we focus more on the female market,” says Willie.
“At Hownam Grange I retain 700 hoggs each year - 100-park and 250-hill for myself. The remainder are sold for breeding as gimmers.”
All breeding females, park and hill, are sold at the society sales at Lockerbie. The top two draws of whethers are also sold as store lambs at Lockerbie.
Forty rams, approximately 30 -hill and 10-park are sold annually. The park rams, sold as shearlings, are traded at Lockerbie, with the hill rams sold as two and three shear at Dingwall and Lairg.
The Thomson’s best price to date is £7,000 for Hownam Grange Chieftain, a three-shear, which topped the 2006 first sale at Lairg.
When choosing stock tups, Willie likes to buy ‘a female breeder’ as he was told if he looked ‘after the females the tups will appear’.
The slopes of Hownam Grange are true sheep farming country and Willie is adamant his chosen breed is the right one.
“There are breeds of sheep which suit specific areas. North Country Cheviots really suit our land.”
Lambing of the park ewes starts on March 20, with the hill ewes almost a month later.
Last winter the snow arrived on November 17 and for more than six weeks, with help from local self-employed shepherds Graham Nairn and Stuart Weir, the Thomsons toiled through 30 inches of snow, to ensure the ewes were looked after.
“We bring the hill ewes down for tupping, so although they were in groups of 50, we could get to them as well as the park ewes, often using a skidoo,” says Willie.
“We were concerned about the ewe’s conception rates and fed them 150 big bales of hay, which proved to be worth every penny. By looking after them, the hill ewes scanned just six per cent less than usual, and thanks to nature’s apology - the excellent spring - we’ve thankfully ended up with our normal kind of lambing percentage - around 125 to 127 per cent for the hill ewes, and 160 to 170 per cent for the park.”
The management of the hill and park types is totally different, with the hill ewes being semi-feral, establishing their own piece of territory, and not appreciating being disturbed, particularly during lambing.
There are more than 1,700 sheep of 24 different breeds, entered for this year’s Royal Highland Show classes. The daily challenges, thrills and spills of sheep farming in the hills of the Scottish Borders will seem a million miles away as hundreds of white coated show men and women present their perfectly coiffured sheep to the judges.
Only two of the white coat wearers have won four Royal Highland Show Sheep Inter-breeds, and in 2011, with seven park and four hill North Country Cheviots, Jim and Willie Thomson will be doing their very best to make it five.