Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Top of the flocks in Donegal

Raphoe-based Andrew and Richard Wilson are breeding some of the best sheep in the country

Andrew Wilson with the Reserve Champion at the Donegal Pedigree Suffolk Sheep Breeders Show and Sale in Raphoe Mart last September. Photo: Clive Wasson
Andrew Wilson with the Reserve Champion at the Donegal Pedigree Suffolk Sheep Breeders Show and Sale in Raphoe Mart last September. Photo: Clive Wasson
Richard Wilson pictured with the overall champion owned at the 2007 Suffolk Sheep Society (South of Ireland Branch) Premier Show and Sale at Roscrea. Photo: Alf Harvey.

Martin Ryan

An ambition to make the most of the best ovine genetics in Ireland and Britain has driven the success of a Donegal duo of pedigree Suffolk breeders who have had a phenomenal year of awards.

Andrew Wilson and his brother Richard keep a flock of 80 of the best breeding ewes in the country in their Shannagh and Castleisle Suffolk flocks at Raphoe where Suffolks have grazed for more than half a century, going back to their father William's time.

"I grew up with Suffolks. I never knew this farm without Suffolk sheep on it. There was always Suffolks here as far back as I can remember," says Andrew.

He was only 15 years old when he had no doubt about the career that he wanted to pursue. His heart was set on becoming a pedigree Suffolk breeder.

But it was not just any pedigree flock that he was interested in.

His ambition, even at such an early age, was clearly focused on breeding from the best Suffolk genetics that could be found and he was already thinking about how he could assemble his dream flock.

During his final year in secondary school he was laying a sound foundation before he went on to agricultural college to study for his Higher National Diploma in agriculture.

"As part of that course I had to do placement for a year. I contacted three or four of the most successful Suffolk breeders in the UK, to see if I could do placement with them.

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"I was very fortunate that on one of the farms I got the opportunity to work on had one of the most best flocks of the 1990's in the UK," he recalled.

After finishing the course he returned to the UK for another four years and worked with top breeders "to learn how to make a living from sheep farming".

The farms included one which in the same year had received the record price for a Suffolk lamb and also the pedigree and the record for Texel.

"I wanted to learn as much as I could about the Suffolks, and I did, and formed a good relationship with the Muiresk flock in Scotland.

"Our own flock stems back to that flock which was a household name in Suffolks for years," he said.

In 2003, after almost 50 years, during which time the flock had bred more champions and broken more records than any other in the history of the breed, the father and son team Kenny and Barclay Mair held a dispersal sale of the Muiresk flock.

Breeding lines

Buyers came from across Europe, including a number from Ireland to compete for the stock which topped at 14,000gns on the day and some of the breeding on the Wilson farm goes back to the Scottish sheep.

Andrew's philosophy for the flock was simple: "I was interested in anything that came the way that had good genetics - wherever they were to be found".

He was constantly on the look out for "better genetics" and every year tried to buy from the tops in breeding lines, admitting that even when on holidays there was nothing he enjoyed more than visiting a top flock.

"Everyone wants to breed the lamb that makes 10,000gns or 20,000gns but they are very rare.

"A breeder is lucky to get a few good lambs in a year.

"You live the dream of getting the top lamb but there is only a small percentage that makes that grade any year," he says.

Over the last 11 years at the Elite Suffolk Show and Sale at Roscrea the Shannagh and Castleisle Suffolks have secured the highest or second highest average price on nine occasions and exhibited four overall Champions, four Reserve Champions, and three first prize Groups.

However, the success over the past decade was nothing compared with the honours which the flocks have won in 2015.

It's been the Wilsons' best year, culminating in the winning of the Supreme Championship at the Scottish Stirling sale being only the second breeder from Southern Ireland ever to win the award.

The Champion sold for £14,000gns in Scotland, and the flock achieving the second highest average of £5,390gns.

There has been a succession of outstanding rams used in the flock which have sired an exceptional run of winners and top price males and females.

He regards Birness Murray owned jointly with Burnview as "one of the best to date" and told me "he cost 5,550gns and I was prepared to pay twice that for him - sometimes you get good value".

He added: "I had seen him a month out from the sale and I put him on my shortlist because I liked him."

The former winner at Balmoral as a Shearling ram he sired the £14,000 Castleisle Knockout, the Reserve Champion at Shrewsbury, second highest priced lamb at Kelso and two of the first prize group of three lambs at Roscrea, selling for €3,000, €3,500, with other sons selling at £2,200,and £2,600.

Another of the successful sires was Shannagh Resolve sire of both the Champion and Reserve at Roscrea this year, with the Champion selling for 31,000gns.

Shannagh Resolve was reserve at Roscrea in 2011 where he sold him for 11,000gns.

"We were fortunate enough to have been able to buy back a half share in him and he has gone on to be one of our most successful lambs certainly in Ireland".

The Irish Homebred Sire of the Year 2013, his top twelve sons averaged 2,600gns with sons this year selling at £2,000gns, £2,600gns.

He sired the first prize shearling ram at Royal Ulster, Ballymena, Ballymoney and Omagh Shows and male and Reserve Champion at Ballymena.

One of the winning interbreed group of three and reserve champion pair at RUAS, he bred this years Champion and Reserve at Roscrea Sale selling to €31,000gns to Cairness and judged Irish Sire of the Year 2015.

Despite his exceptional success to date, Andrew is still as dedicated as he ever was.

"Absolutely. When I was 15 years old I aspired to breeding an Edinburgh Champion which is as high as you can go.

"Having achieved that I want to go back next year and win it again.

"It might not happen for another 10 years - it might never happen again - but you are always hoping that it will".

What continues to drive his quest for perfection? "I absolutely love what I am doing. I believe that life would be very quiet without the Suffolks on my farm" says Andrew.

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