That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Scottish sheep farmer, Eilidh Simmons (17) in this week’s women in ag segment. We discuss her sheep farming roots, passion for exhibiting her flock at agricultural shows and plans to further her studies.
“I was born in Inverness and lived in the very remote Brae Roy in the west of Scotland until I was three. That is when we moved to a farm near Tomintoul in the Cairngorms, where I currently live.
Farming and animals are in my blood, as my dad has always worked in agriculture and my mum was a vet; however, my dad took on our farm as a new entrant.
My earliest farming memory is showing and selling chickens. I had pure-bred bantam Black Orpingtons and Silver Laced Sebrights, which I always took to the local fur and feather show.
My dad is the first generation of sheep farmers. However, the farm used to be mixed between cattle and sheep before moving to all sheep a few years ago.
Farming is a part-time commitment, as I only finished school this May. I will be heading off to college to begin my studies there in September.
Our farm is Ruthven Farm, near Tomintoul in the Cairngorms National Park. I am lucky to be able to keep my own pedigree flocks of Bluefaced Leicesters and Ryelands at home with the Ruthven prefix.
My parents, Jim and Lesley Simmons, jointly run the farm, with help from me and my sister Kirsty when we are at home.
We run a farm tours business alongside the sheep enterprise to bring in some extra income.
Scottish sheep farmer
My flock of sheep comprises two pedigree breeds – Crossing-type Bluefaced Leicesters and Ryelands. As my dad breeds Scotch Mules on the farm, we have always had Bluefaced Leicesters to sire these lambs.
They are incredibly prolific, so they cross very well onto hardier hill breeds. I received my first two ewes as a Christmas present in 2017, and since then, I have grown my flock at a rapid rate.
We originally got Ryelands as a family flock of sheep, as they were a good size for us to all handle and are very gentle-natured.
We had gone to the sale to buy a Kerryhill but came home with a Ryeland. Then, we were put in touch with a very highly acclaimed breeder who sold us our starter flock.
So, we bought a tup and two ewes with three lambs and built our flock solely from those sheep.
On the other hand, Bluefaced Leicesters are quite a bit higher maintenance and have a much lower survival rate.
Therefore, I have bought another couple of ewes every year. Most of my flock has been bred up from Mid-Auchengrey lines.
Lambing and desirable traits
My flocks now sit at ten breeding ewes with the Ryelands and fifteen blue ewes, which I breed pure, along with a few Blue ewes that I cross to the Suffolk tup.
We aim to lamb the Ryelands from mid-February to mid-March. However, due to our altitude at 1,000ft above sea level and the fact that the Rylands tend to be a little on the fat side, we usually lamb them from the last week in February to the first week in April.
The Bluefaced Leicesters are born very bare-skinned, so we start lambing them at the beginning of March at the very earliest.
We have always used sponges to try and keep them lambing at regular intervals. However, this year, we tried CIDRS and will most definitely be using them again.
With both breeds, I retain the best females for myself and sell any other correct sheep privately or through sales.
I run through one Ryeland tup lamb each year and my best few blue tup lambs, which I then trial breed onto my dad’s blackies.
With my Ryelands, I am currently trying to work on breeding straighter legs into my flock as with the traditional type I have; the sheep tend to be a bit knock-kneed.
Also, I aim to breed sheep with good strong bodies and correct mouths, and if they can have a good showy head, alongside that, then it is a bonus.
I am not quite as far on with my blues yet, but I am currently trying to crack down on any incorrect mouths.
I have always been taught to get the mouths and skins right first, and then you can look at making them flashy.
The most enjoyable aspect of breeding sheep for me is probably showing. It is always so nice to get feedback and encouragement on your flock, and little compares to the feeling of placing highly with a sheep that you have bred yourself.
I also love lambing time as it is the first time you see how you have come on with your stock that year.
The thing I find most challenging is trying to compare with and compete against the Southern Scottish and English breeders.
They are very often able to lamb earlier and have a lot less harsh winters, so I struggle to get my lambs to the same size and condition for shows and sales.
I show my Ryelands at quite a few shows, usually. This year was my second year competing at the Royal Highland Show, where I was delighted to come away with a fifth prize in the aged ewe class. Furthermore, I am a regular competitor in the Ryeland classes at Turriff Show.
Also, I show mules with my dad at the Grantown Show. This year will be my first year of showing my blues, and I am taking four with me to Turriff Show to see where I stand with them.
Getting placed at the Highland Show this year was a real dream come true, and I also got a second-place young handler there in 2019, so both of those were amazing, surreal moments.
I took a couple of my blue ewe lambs to a pedigree sale at the start of this year for the first time and got on really well with them. That was also quite a big step forward in my flock’s journey.
I am passionate about regenerative farming and farming in a way that benefits the environment. I feel that agriculture gets a lot of negative press for an industry that can do a lot of good.
Regenerative agriculture is an area that I have done a lot of research into this year, and I am a very big fan of the idea of being able to farm in a way that is profitable and beneficial to the climate, biodiversity and soil health.
I can see that with potentially changing legislation in the future that it will become quite a big thing. If I take on the farm in the future, it is the path that I would like to go down.
My responsibilities on the farm vary throughout the year – during lambing time, it is a huge team effort, but my mum, me and my sister tend to do most of the indoor lambing, especially as my sheep-catching skills are not quite up to catching blackies in the field yet!
Then, I am usually on wool rolling during shearing and helping where I can when it comes to sorting lambs through the autumn.
Through winter, I muck in with the feeding of the indoor sheep. However, the whole farm really is a team effort between the four of us.
I think to be successful in sheep farming, you have got to be determined, resilient and passionate.
Sheep farming is a lifestyle of ups and downs. I think it takes someone who can brush off a bad day and start the next day with the same enthusiasm and passion.
Even with my own pedigrees, you get days where any rational person would probably sell the lot and take up an easier and less stressful hobby.
However, you have to write it off as a bad day and start afresh the next one. Sheep farming is not for quitters.
For anyone who wants to get into sheep, I would say to speak to anyone you can find who is already involved in sheep farming and get as much advice as possible.
I have always been taught that there is something to learn from everyone, even if it is how not to do something.
But having a good support network of people who know what they are doing is invaluable when it comes to anything sheep.
If I could turn back the clock, I would not do anything differently. The things that have gone wrong are most probably the things have taught me the most.
Women in agriculture
I am lucky that with the Ryeland breed, there is a fairly even gender split, so I have never really been treated any differently, and people have always respected me for showing my own flock of sheep.
But, with the Blue breed,I have always felt that people take me a lot less seriously when it comes to buying sheep.
I think I have always been seen as the farmer’s daughter who goes along with him to the sale rather than an actual potential customer, although that starts to change.
Honestly, I think it is still harder for women to get into the industry, especially when it comes to generational farms.
I know through many of my farming friends that the boys are almost trained into the farm from a young age while girls are expected to either be farmer’s wives or go into another job, in many cases.
There are already a lot of great initiatives in place to encourage women into the sector, and I feel like these are starting to work.
More and more employers are starting to recognise the benefits of the maternal instincts and compassion that some men lack.
But, I think publicity and education are the ways forward. Showing girls from a young age that they can work in farming is another important aspect too.
I am in a lucky position where I have not been disadvantaged because of my gender. However, I know that I am part of a minority, which is not the case for everyone.
As I am heading off to college in September, I do not plan to increase my flock; however, I would love to continue showing and selling my sheep and hopefully continue to improve the quality by being very selective with my breeding.
I have absolutely no idea where I’ll be in five years’ time with my sheep. I will be finished college, so it will depend on where I end up working.
Besides, I am about to start an HND in Equine Studies. But, I have by no means closed the door on coming back to farming.
I think that sheep farming is a viable business, but you have got to be in it because you love the lifestyle; you will never be rich, but if you are happy, I think that’s more important.
My ultimate goal is to be able to continue to breed and keep my sheep. That may be a case of me taking over the farm or having my own smallholding in the future.
There are a few other goals, such as showing a blue at the Highland Show and selling a sheep for over 1,000, but they are secondary!
Sheep have been my life for as long as I can remember. I would never change that for the world. It has been a real journey of highs and lows. But, through it, I have made some of my very best friends.
There is nothing better than spending an evening in the field with my flock.
I think the future of agriculture is strong; there are many skilled and switched-on young farmers coming into the industry.
However, I imagine there will be a lot of change in the sector over the next ten years with climate change and the ever-improving farming technology.
I also think a lot of the future of agriculture, in this age, relies on publicity and media. Still, if we can continue using these to promote the benefits of the industry, I think the future is very bright.”
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