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Crofting Agriculture
Chapter XI. The Crofter's Sheep

53. Some Thoughts in General

Most Highlanders who have to do with the land know a good deal about sheep. In the crofting districts sheep are almost the mainstay. When everybody is a professor of the job, what is there for me to say? I do not propose that it should be much beyond a few comments from my own observation over a wide field and the contact of almost a lifetime with hill sheep.

West Highlanders were not sheep men two hundred years ago, but after the Rebellions, when Lowland flockmasters turned their eyes to Highland hills, they took to shepherding with remarkable ease and without customary objection to this newfangled notion. The Highlander tends to take to the pastoral life much easier than he does to the clodhopping monotony of arable cultivation, with its attendant work of bullock fattening and pig feeding. I, who am not a Highlander but a Borderer by breeding, have much sympathy with this delight in a pastoral husbandry, but my personal opinion is that sheep have been the curse of the West Highlands—sheep and hoodie crows.

To begin with, the coming of the sheep was responsible for many more clearances and more cruel ones than was the rise of the deer forests at a later date. Hill sheep farming employs the least man power of any form of husbandry in Britain. Hill pastures and glens under sheep deteriorate faster than under any other class of stock. The early sheep men cut down an immense amount of cover, and since then the sheep have effectually prevented regeneration of patches of woodland over large areas. At the present time, I should say, there are quite twice as many sheep in the West as there should be for the health of both sheep and ground, and it is concern for sheep, more than anything else, which is holding up any considerable advance in husbandry in the crofting areas. When a township is in such case that its sheep stock cannot be kept outside the head dyke and that ewes and lambs are nipping the heart out of the enclosed grass parks until the end of May, that township is grossly overstocked with sheep. The crofters of such a township are year by year lessening their stock-carrying capacity by reducing the possibilities of growing winter keep.

There is also a queer distribution of breeds in the West. There is a good green ground on volcanic soil carrying Blackfaces which could carry Cheviots quite well, and there is a stretch of country in the North-West trying to maintain Cheviots though it is the poorest hill ground in the whole of Scotland. Even Blackfaces would not be robust on such ground. When an area cannot maintain its ewe stock from its own breeding it is obvious that it is not good sheep country ; yet such is the position in parts of the North-West. I suppose the reason for Cheviots being kept in such country is that it is not far away from the good Cheviot ground in mid-Sutherland. The shotts have filtered over to the West.

I have heard from crofters in such poor areas that they make a better price from Cheviot lambs than from Blackfaces, and down-country farmers have told me that the Cheviot lambs they buy from these crofting areas always do well with them. Quite so : but the price of lambs is not the sole criterion for judging the profitableness of sheep. There is the question of mortality to be considered and the cost of wintering the sheep stock as a whole. Similarly, the fact that a down-country farmer makes a good thing out of these lambs on better land is no reason for suggesting the crofter also made a profit out of rearing them. Those lambs represent the final survival from a long line of death. The mortality among tups is very high in the West, there are winter losses among the ewes, losses at lambing among both ewes and lambs and the first winter losses in the hoggs. Those wether lambs which come into the little township sales certainly ought to fetch a high price. If a breed is kept in which mortality is much less, then a lesser price for a larger number of lambs may show a greater profit.

54. Fleece Types

The above remarks were not intended to decry the Cheviot breed in the North and West and extol the Blackface. Personally, I think Blackfaces are easier to herd than Cheviots, but the Blackfaces have their serious disadvantages. For example, it is the general opinion that Blackfaces are more likely to be struck by the fly than Cheviots, though the latter are bad enough as we all know. There is also the problem of Blackface wool. I say problem, because it is indeed a tangled skein and a fantastic situation. At the present time, when the export trade in Blackface wool for carpet manufacture is at a standstill, most of the clip is being stored and an uneconomic high price is being paid for it by the Wool Control—which means the taxpayer.

The best Blackface wool for carpets or for mattress stuffing is that which comes from Lowland hills, particularly Lanarkshire and parts of Ayrshire, and from Angus hills. The worst Blackface wool comes from the West Highlands. Yet year after year, sheep farmers in the West, and crofters, through the Department of Agriculture, are importing tups with stronger fleeces from farther south and east in order to try and keep a type of fleece which the West simply cannot grow. All we succeed in doing is to produce the worst wool of a type which we have to sell because it is no use to us at home. And if we are making a profit on it at present it is because we are passing the buck to the country at large, which is having to buy at a high subsidized price a raw material it does not want, cannot use, and has to store.

In the West we should try to see this problem as a whole and put our foot down fair and square. The Outer Isles by reason of their remoteness or what else have a strain of Blackface sheep which are rather longer on the leg and much shorter and softer in the wool than ordinary Blackface sheep. The Hebrideans are not attempting to sell this wool as nondescript Blackface and therefore do not come into that market at all. This wool is the precious raw material of their distinctive product of hand-woven tweed which, until recently, had the name of being hard-wearing and wet resisting. Now such is the misguided enthusiasm of improvers of animals (they are a class to beware of for they see one thing in front of them and nothing else) that hard-fleeced Blackfaces are being imported to improve the island type. The result is that some of the Hebridean wool is becoming too coarse for tweedmaking and has to be exported to join the other rubbishy stuff from the West in the Blackface wool stores. And to complete the fantastic situation, the Hebrides have nowhere near enough of their distinctive type of wool for this Harris-tweed trade and are having to import wool from Galashiels and such places. Surely it would be better, not only in the Hebrides, but in the West as a whole, to give up trying to breed the type of Blackface fleece which only the Lowlands can produce satisfactorily (and like as not the Lowland Blackface men are only following a fashion) and turn to breeding a type of Blackface with a woollier fleece, the kind of wool which keeps its separate staples with a bit of "lash" at the tips. Such wool could be processed and finished in the West.

I hope the above remarks will not represent me as wishing to see the Lewis type of Blackface spreading over the West Highlands. The place for the Lewis Blackface is in Lewis, where it is an example of a sheep adapted to its particular environment, which is largely deep peat bog. It is an axiom of the science and practice of animal breeding that an animal should not be "improved" beyond the capacity of the environment to maintain such improvement. The sheep of Lewis are probably as good as they can be except for better selection and greater care within the island flocks. But in the West Highlands generally we must not contribute to the fallacy that a good-bodied Blackface sheep must of necessity have a nondescript strong-wooled type of fleece. The Galloway men have shown that it is possible to grow a woollier fleece on a good sheep. Galloway sheep clip lighter than Lanarkshire ones, but I understand their wool is being used for tweedmaking rather than going into store and is worth more than carpet wool on a competitive basis. There is nothing in such a policy to prevent continued emphasis on mutton qualities.

55. West Highland Wool in the Future

It is fifteen years since I finished a piece of research on the Blackface fleece as it occurred on the animal, but I did not give up an awakened observation which that research brought about. Since then observation has confirmed some conclusions I made rather respectfully at the time, for I was a young man reared in the Blackface tradition and with a great admiration for the big names in the fancy.

The story as generally told is that the Blackface fleece of the desired strong type is necessary to turn the heavy rain. Is it? The rainfall in those areas which best produce this desired type of fleece is less than half what it is in the West where such a fleece cannot be grown, however much you pay for a tup. In point of fact, that particularly rainy area of Ross-shire to the east of Skye grazes Cheviots almost exclusively and makes a good job of them. Furthermore, the outstanding defect of the Blackface fleece, and one which breeders do their best to remedy, is a tendency to thinness of fleece over the withers. The staples part there and let the rain on to the skin, so any supposed rain-shedding quality of the strong staples is not much good anyway.

The Blackface type of fleece is not good in snow, yet the desired type of long stiff staple is found where the snow is likely to be heavier and to lie longer than in the West. The certain good point in the fancy type of Blackface fleece is its good weight. If industry finds a technique of melting down rough wool and drawing a new uniform wool fibre from it, then there will be plenty of room for all the Blackface wool we can produce as the raw material of a new industry. [Since writing the above I have come to the conclusion that such an idea holds no hope, for in a recent conversation with a research chemist who is actually producing an artificial wool fibre, I learned that the protein used cost about 1d. per lb. and was derived from nuts. He said it would be quite possible to dissolve Blackface wool and produce his new fibre, but he would not be able to pay 1s. 4d. per lb. for it.]

If you take a staple of Blackface wool, examine it carefully and draw forth the long hairs (and the stiff, dead kempy fibres which should not be there at all), you will be left with a small amount of beautifully soft, lustrous wool. In the course of that early research of mine, I found that this fraction of the staple was the most constant, and that the long hair and the kemp (particularly the latter) were more variable in their numbers and weight. As change by selective breeding depends largely on the existence of variability, I suggested that the character of the Blackface fleece—so largely determined by the texture of the long hairs—could be altered within a few generations. There is already a decided move in Galloway to breed a much woollier type of Blackface, and it is there we should go for good bodied tups which would further woolliness in our western stocks and yet maintain and improve conformation.

One of the great advantages of the Blackface over the Cheviot on western grazings is the altogether better type of birth coat of the lamb. As far as I can observe, the woollier type of Blackface is not noticeably poorer in birth coat. After all, in breeding for a woolly Blackface we are not aiming at a Cheviot type of fleece, but, as I said before, a woolly moderately separate staple tapering to a short "lash." Such a fleece, with its sub-stratum of soft, lustrous wool would be ideal for tweedmaking.

I am sure that the West Highlands cannot afford to export their wool raw. We should keep the processing of it here in the West as a small local industry ; and the finishing, such as tweedmaking or knitting, should be done in our own homes. Some may say, should not the spinning be done in our homes as well? Personally, I think hand spinning, except for special jobs, will die out and we should not be unduly sorry. It is a tedious job taking a lot of time and prevents a woman being able to get out and about or to have time for reading, gardening and social life. There is far too much romantic whimsy-whamsy about hand spinning.

56. The Shetland Sheep

It is with some hesitation that I devote an article to the Shetland sheep, because I am an enthusiast for the breed, and until a few weeks ago was the proud owner of a small flock. If the chance comes my way again I shall certainly start up afresh, for not only do I like these sheep, but under certain sets of conditions they will leave more profit than either Blackface or Cheviots. The main difficulty is that there are not enough of them, and they are so little known that when they appear in the markets, buyers look askance at these small, scraggy creatures that can jump and do not work to a dog as well as other sheep do.

The Shetland sheep is nearest the primitive wild Moufflon of any of our British domesticated sheep. The Soay sheep of one island of the St Kilda group are still nearer the Moufflon, but they can hardly be called domesticated. Most Shetland sheep are chestnut-brown in colour (like the Moufflon), but there is a diminishing number of pure white ones, a few fawns, a few blacks and a few greys, but these greys have a different type of fleece and in my opinion are more akin to the Ronaldshay breed of sheep in North Orkney.

The tups are horned and many of them grow the same shape of horn as the Moufflon, smoother, wider spreading and black, quite unlike the Blackface type. The ewes are mostly hornless, but some have short, rather shapeless horns. These sheep were undoubtedly brought from Norway in Viking times and not only to Shetland but to the Outer Hebrides and West Highlands as well. These were the old "tan-faced" sheep which were here two hundred years ago and were to become extinct as Blackface and Cheviot came north in the great sheep colonization of the Highlands. There may still be people alive who remember the last of the old kind, and if any of them would care to send me any information about such sheep, I should receive it gratefully.

Shetland sheep are mostly clean-faced though many ewes carry a little bit of "muff." The legs are always clean of wool to above the knee and hock and are of fine bone of exquisite quality. The tail is naturally short, triangular in shape like that of the Moufflon and bare of wool for the last couple of inches. These sheep never need to be "birled" or tail-clipped at tupping time or for keeping them clean.

One of the outstanding points of the Shetlander is the milky quality of the ewe. She will rear a lamb by a Cheviot tup that will be bigger at weaning time than pure bred Cheviots in the same area. In such a cross the Cheviot type is dominant. Obviously, if the breed became commoner in the West, the cross with a Cheviot tup would be the one to make with the cast Shetland ewes. The Blackface cross is a miserable looking creature and not to be considered.

Speaking of cast ewes reminds me to say that Shetland ewes are inclined to be like old soldiers who never die but only fade away. There are deaths, of course, but the Shetland ewe is normally a long-lived animal who will keep a full mouth of teeth years longer than a Blackface. When given the slightest chance of better keep she produces twins and rears them well. Triplets are quite common and are also easily reared. The lambs are nigger brown in colour if the parents are "moorit" or chestnut-coloured, and they have a close hairy birth coat, which is proof against all the weather we are likely to get.


These are good days in high summer. These Blackface sheep of the distinct Hebridean type have woolly fleeces which provide the best type of wool for Harris tweed. With more care in selection and breeding it is probable that the weight of fleece could be increased. This type of wool is worth much more to the crofter weaving his own yarn than the Blackface wool of mainland flocks. In the Hebrides, as in Shetland, it pays to keep wether flocks; for these sheep sell but poorly as lambs and the wethers give a good clip of wool which can be used at home.

Mortality in ewes and lambs is low, and more important than almost anything else, these moorit Shetlanders are highly resistant to attack by the maggot fly. I never had a case in my own sheep (which being on a remote island were never dipped), and when I had to do with the breed in small paddocks at the Institute of Animal Genetics at the University of Edinburgh, we did not have a case there, though the fly was a scourge in other breeds under such conditions.

I believe that an extension of the Shetland breed of sheep in some of the Islands and on some of our West Highland promontories would be a good thing all round. The wool could be finished at home and go to a retail market which is large and quite unsatisfied at present. Because of the high price of the wool, it pays to keep wethers to two or three years old, which fact, together with the low mortality in ewes and lambs, means that it is unnecessary to keep a large ewe stock. Shetland lamb provides the small joint much in demand, but a finished Shetland wether is a gourmet's dream. The fat on the Shetlander cannot be felt from outside the sheep for it is within the muscle and round the kidneys.

Their biggest drawback is the work they put on the dogs, but if a few ewes are tamed and kept around the croft, they are tamer and more sensible than Blackfaces or Cheviots.

57. Sheep Diseases

I have no intention of going into a long description of sheep diseases. Most of us know the symptoms well enough. But it might be worth while saying that during the last twenty years a good deal of research on the subject has been done, and that it is now possible to prevent the incidence of many diseases which still take a heavy toll. This preventive treatment usually means the injection of a vaccine, which contains a modified form of the germ which actually causes the disease. The injection of this modified-germ preparation causes the production within the sheep's bloodstream of those bodies which could fight and kill the disease. The blood is thus armed against that particular disease and when infection comes along it is nipped in the bud.

Braxy, for example, is a common early winter-time disease which tends to go for those sheep which are in best condition. Inoculation confers immunity in fourteen days, though where braxy is very bad, two injections at intervals of a fortnight in early autumn are advisable.

The scourge of louping-ill or trembling can also be much diminished by the use of a vaccine. Louping-ill is caused by a virus which is transmitted to the sheep or cattle beast by means of the saliva of the tick. If we could get rid of the tick we should rid ourselves of the risk of louping-ill, but we cannot do that in hill country. The disease occurs mainly in April, May and June when the ticks come on the animals, and to a lesser extent in September when there is a second tick invasion.

If vaccination has not been done before, it is wise to inject the whole sheep stock, except the young lambs, for they are apt to go down under the injection. Subsequently, hoggs and gimmers should be inoculated at the beginning of March; or if the ground is known to be bad for louping-ill in autumn, the ewe lambs should be inoculated in August and again in March.

Dipping of the ewes about ten days or a week before lambing is a partial and external aid to preventing louping-ill, in that it discourages the invasion of ticks, but it cannot be looked upon as a very satisfactory means. Dipping at such a time means hashing the sheep and gathering them from their accustomed places on the hill, all of which does them no good, and if the weather is wet, the dip soon goes.

Lamb dysentery is also causing a lot of trouble. One means of naturally keeping the incidence low is to keep ewes and lambs well out and not crowded at all, for infection is heavy in pastures contaminated with excrement. Vaccine prevention consists in inoculating the ewes a few days before tupping time and again a fortnight before lambing. It is interesting to note that the lamb within the mother's body is not made immune, but her first milk—the colostrum—is heavily charged with antibodies and the lamb is given a short-term immunity which lasts it through the danger period of the first and second weeks of life.

These vaccines have been largely made possible by the research carried on at the Moredun Institute, Edinburgh. It is in the interests of all independent crofters and members of sheep club stocks to use inoculation as a preventive measure in such diseases as respond to this form of attack.

Worm diseases in sheep are common enough, but we know enough about them now to exercise control. Liver fluke need bother nobody now that carbon tetrachloride solution for drenching sheep can be bought at almost every village store. Stomach worms are much worse in sheep which are poorly fed, and they increase enormously if the density of sheep on any particular bit of ground is heavy. Good bodily condition and keeping the sheep spread about the hill and not allowing them to congregate on the low ground or common grazing just outside the fence, are the best means of keeping worms in check. Salt licks are also a help, but they should be well spread about the ground. Remember— congregation means infestation.

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