When the Tups come marching in

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By a Newsnet reporter
 
One of the biggest dates in the Scottish sheep farming calendar is fast approaching.
 
The annual Kelso Tup Sales take place this coming Friday, 14th September, and are set to attract farmers and shepherds from all over Scotland, the north of England and beyond, to peruse and purchase from the 5000 or so tups catalogued to come under the hammer.  In previous years tups have been bought at Kelso and exported to Germany, Holland and Eire.

By a Newsnet reporter
 
One of the biggest dates in the Scottish sheep farming calendar is fast approaching.
 
The annual Kelso Tup Sales take place this coming Friday, 14th September, and are set to attract farmers and shepherds from all over Scotland, the north of England and beyond, to peruse and purchase from the 5000 or so tups catalogued to come under the hammer.  In previous years tups have been bought at Kelso and exported to Germany, Holland and Eire.

As Scotland’s Geography teachers always used to be keen to instil – perhaps they still are – the sheep industry in Scotland works under a system of ‘stratification’.  At the very top of the mountain, where more rocks and scree grow than grass, flocks of pure Blackface and Cheviot, Scotland’s hardy and renowned hill sheep are to be found.  Often these sheep are grazed on an acres-per-ewe basis rather than ewes-per-acre.

On the slightly better hill and in-bye ground, a bit lower down, the Blackies and Cheviots are crossed with breeds such as the Border Leicester or the Blue Headed Leicester and the resulting female offspring are sold to farmers lower down the hill.  There, on lower ground with better grass, these half-bred and mule ewes are crossed with what is known as a ‘terminal sire’ tup to hopefully produce large numbers of prime lambs destined for the dinner plate.

The tups on offer at Kelso are mainly of the crossing and terminal sire breeds, with specialist sales held at marts such as Dalmally and Lockerbie for Blackies and Cheviots.  Suffolks and Texels are the main terminal sires used on sheep in Scotland and this is reflected in the numbers from these breeds on offer at the Kelso sales. 

Other breeds, such as the Beltex and Charollais have gained a following amongst many sheep producers in recent years and, just to add to the choice, there are also now many cross-bred tups finding ready buyers at the sales.

The Kelso tup sale is big business, the 4,500 sold in 2011 averaged £650 per head, generating almost £3m and helping Kelso to maintain its title as the biggest one-day tup sale in the world.  Behind the figures, as always, there are highlights and lowlights.  Top priced tup in 2011 was a Texel which sold for pedigree breeding at £15,000! The lowlights were the 15% of tups auctioned that failed to meet their sellers’ expectations and returned home unsold. 

Sheep farmers live by the maxim that ‘the tup is half the flock’.  For many farmers, buying the right tup is the key to introducing the right traits for lamb growth, carcase conformation and other desirable characteristics to their enterprises.

Chef’s, butchers, supermarkets and consumers all have sophisticated tastes when it comes to buying meat and if a lamb producer does not achieve the desired specification for his or her prime lambs, then they will receive a poorer price.  With the profitability, or otherwise, of their flocks in the balance, the deliberations, consternation and head scratching that go into buying the right tup at the right price cause many a sheep farmer sleepless nights in the run up to the Kelso sales. 

In the past, the assessment of the desirable traits of a tup were mostly based on a visual once over, how other individuals from its home flock had been judged at various agricultural shows and anecdotal evidence of the breeding performance of its father, its fathers’ father and so on.

Over recent years, the job of tup selection has become a bit more scientific, but possibly just as difficult, thanks to the myriad of performance data now recorded and catalogued for many of the tups on offer.  In theory, it should now be possible to buy a tup based solely on its figures, called Estimated Breeding Values (EBV’s), without even setting eyes on the animal.

In practice, good shepherds will use a combination of EBV’s, expert eyes and financial acumen in the hope of leaving Kelso with the right tup for the right price.  From Friday evening, the long wait until lambing time next spring and the lamb sales next summer and autumn begins; only then will the tup buying decision bear fruit.