Borders family among top Shetland breeders

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The Playfair family of Stichill Eastfield, near Kelso, want to be the ‘go-to’ breeders for pure colour Shetland sheep.

And certainly looking at their showing season this year the enthusiasts, who got into the breed to cross-graze horses, are well on their way.

Patrick, Denise and son Alex have been showing since 2008 and were “delighted” with red rosettes for class wins for the first five years, said Patrick.

The breakthrough came at the Highland Show last year when they won the breed championship with a bought-in white ewe. They went back and won again this year, this time with a homebred animal, Kaimknowe Gorgeous George, a two shear tup.

It heralded a successful season to come when the family took breed championships at a further six shows, most recently at Yetholm.

Patrick said: “It’s a big turnaround from two years ago when we finished the season with a single red rosette for a lamb class to show from the whole season!

He added: “It (that first Highland Show win) was our first ever championship so to do that on only our second visit to the Highland, against all that competition (well over 100 sheep in the Shetland classes) and at the biggest Shetland event in the country was unbelievable for us.

“Winning at Peebles last year with a home grown moorit shearling tup was also special as he became our first home grown, moorit champion.”

Returning to the Highland again this year was a significant success because it was with a home-grown white tup. Patrick said: “I think many people saw last year as a fluke, that we happened to have hit it lucky with the one particular, bought-in, sheep.”

But he added: “Perhaps the greatest success though is that, of the ten championships we’ve won, success has been with eight different sheep, showing our flock has good quality across the board.”

An environmental surveyor with Edwin Thompson, Patrick and artist Denise, who is originally from Duns, combine full time work with their 60-ewe enterprise and run their sheep on 65 acres over three counties.

Ewes and lambs for showing graze at home, while the main flock leave after lambing in March to grazing at Foulden, Cockburnspath and Luffness. Lambs are speaned off their mothers in August but most are kept on for sale in their second year.

“We got the sheep to cross-graze with Denise’s horses”, explained Patrick. “Shetlands are a breed she knew, as her father has had them for years, and they are easy to keep for people who have full-time jobs. They are survivors, lamb easily, mother well and can live off most sorts of ground.

“More recently, I have been using them for conservation grazing of various SSSI and species rich grassland sites as well, for which they are good because they are happy eating most things.”

The family have three - moorit (brown), white and black - flocks and, Patrick explained: “Because Denise is keen on showing horses it seemed natural, a few years back, to start showing our sheep. We are also enjoying developing the flocks, particularly through buying suitable replacement tups which has been very rewarding.

“I had wanted to be a farmer before I knew much about the economics of farming and, more particularly, how difficult it is to get into farming without having that background, so for me this is fulfilling a dream (although I can certainly curse the little beggars frequently).”

Denise is secretary of the Shetland Sheep Society and she and Patrick are thinking of using their outbuildings to help other would-be sheep keepers get started with the breed.

Asked what further ambitions the team have, Patrick said: “To win the Highland with a coloured sheep, and to be recognised as the ‘go to’ flock for pure (single)-colour Shetlands.

“I would also like to get the sheep to at least break-even financially, but that’s probably the most fanciful ambition of the lot!”