In Conversation with Jim Robertson
1. Where in the UK is your farm and what breed of sheep do you farm?
My name is Jim Robertson and I farm the Becks Farm, situated in Eskdale, Dumfries and Galloway Scotland. We are a hill farm with a hefted flock of South Country Cheviots.
2. How long have you or your family been involved in farming? What incentivised you to get involved?
I am the 3rd generation of farmers, but the first at the Becks. I never wanted or could imagine doing anything else! We live and work in a beautiful country which has been shaped by farmers over the generations.
3. What does an average day look like for a sheep farmer and what are some of the responsibilities?
There are no average days whilst hill farming! It is very seasonal - autumn is the start of our farming year, this is when we select ewes to be mated with our pedigree rams, so it is vital that they are in peek condition.
4. How many sheep are in your flock?
We run 1000 ewes over 1700 acres of land, but after lambing there can be up to 2,500 with new-born lambs.
5. What are the characteristics of the breed of sheep you farm, and do you ever name your sheep?!
South Country Cheviot is a white flock of sheep bred for the hills. She has thick white hair on her head and ears and an extremely thick dense wool fleece to help her through the winter. With the average rainfall in this area, they need to stay both warm and dry! Yes, we do name some, the males in particular are named after the annual ram sale; this along with their registered flock number are entered into the South Country Cheviot flock book. For instance, we were first in the ring at our ram sale last year, so he was aptly named Ringleader. Ewes can often get names at home mostly ones that are shown or have a really strong character but that's just for us to remember them in the years after.
6. What is your most memorable work moment as a sheep farmer?
I have to say it was undoubtedly winning the supreme Champion Cheviot at the Royal Highland Show in 2019.
7. Is there anything you would like others to know about sheep farming?
Sheep farmers are really just custodians of the countryside, our sheep have grazed the hills for centuries helping make Scotland such a beautiful Country!
8. In your opinion what does British Wool stand for and why should we choose British wool?
British Wool works hand in hand with farmers all over the UK. Providing a service second to none, from training shearers to shear sheep and then handle wool in a professional manner, from grading to marketing this superb product on behalf of the producers.
9. What’s the most important month in the calendar for sheep farming? Is there a limited timeline for shearing wool? And if so, how does this effect the manufacture and quality of the wool?
It has to be Springtime when it's all hands-on deck. From the lambing season the weather plays a big part but it's vital we do the best we can to get lambs on the ground. Shearing time starts at the end of June here with the hoggs (which are a year old). They are followed in July by the ewes - it is vital that we shear then because of the weather conditions we need to remove their wool before it gets too hot.
10. What contributes to the quality of the wool, i.e., lifestyle, feeding, weather, free roaming?
It's a bit of all these things plus the breeding, we try to breed sheep that can stand up to the wind rain and snow. The year we had the big snowstorm (The Beast from The East) wool quality suffered as the staples were much more brittle than normal.
11. How has British wool farming evolved over the last ten years and what effect has this had on the end product? How do you compete with wool imports from overseas?
There are a lot less farmers than there were 10 years ago. Farms in general are larger but unfortunately a lot of land has been lost to wood production.
12. What's one of the most challenging lessons you've learned as a farmer?
This has to have been coming back from losing our flock in 2001 to Foot and Mouth.
13. What do you think the factors are in farming that can affect the mental health of those who work in the industry?
Farming is a very hard occupation where you have to work long hours, often alone. This isolation is certainly one of the factors that can have an adverse effect on anyone’s mental health but is probably more acute in farming. Like any business, many farmers also face financial pressures which can also have a negative impact on mental health. A very important outlet for the farming community are the auction marts where we all meet for sales, these are now back on but during Covid they were not the same. I suspect this would only have increased that sense of isolation for many farmers. What is very encouraging is that we are actually talking about these issues and the relevant support is increasingly being made available.
14. What does fair production and transparency mean to British wool farmers?
Through British Wool we always try to be transparent with our members, we return the true market price for the wool by selling it in commercial lots on the global market. Through our licensee scheme we have certainly clamped down on brands who were claiming to use British wool but in reality, either weren’t or were using very low quantities in their products. This helps ensure that consumers know that when they buy a product with a British wool label, the money they spend is directly helping British farmers. To this end we have also recently introduced a traceable wool scheme whereby we can identify the actual farms where the end-brands wool is from; this greatly benefits our members as this allows us to charge a premium over the normal auction price for the wool, which is returned to the farmer by way of an additional payment.
15. Let’s talk sustainability! The buzzword in farming right now its carbon neutral farming, how has this affected you?
This is starting to affect all farmers as we strive towards the NFU’s target of reaching net zero greenhouses gas emissions by 2040. Which, incidentally, is 10 years earlier than the Governments own aim. It is crucially important to point out that British livestock farming is already among the most sustainable in the world with 85% of the water consumed by our sheep and cattle coming from rain and 90% of the feed consumed by our sheep coming from grass. It is estimated that our carbon footprint is 2.5 times lower than the global average with our methane Emissions having dropped by 10% in the past 30 years. This is certainly something the farming community in the UK have been taking very serious for some time now. We are trying to do our bit in helping capture carbon from the atmosphere. We have planted over 1400 metres of mixed hedges and trees along with 10 acres of mixed woodland to help soak up CO2 and farming in ways that increase the carbon content of the soil.