Eastside Farm


Eastside Farm is a hill sheep farm in Scotland in the Pentland Hills of Midlothian near Edinburgh. Eastside farm mainly Scottish Blackface sheep and this booklet shows the wonderful colours and textures of the farm through the seasons.

Eastside Farm

through the seasons



& the Cowan family



the heft



ewes in lamb






Late Autumn

tupping time



marking and clipping


Early Autumn

sheep sales



& The Cowan Family

The Cowan family have run a hill sheep

farm in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh

for five generations now. Eastside Farm

is 1230 hectares in area (the equivalent of

2000 football pitches joined together) and

it encompasses some of the best known hills

in the Pentlands such as the South Blackhill,

Hare Hill, Scald Law and The Kipps. At its

lowest point the farm is 860 feet above

sea-level and rises to 1900 feet at the top

of Scald Law. It can be a forbidding terrain

but is very well suited to Scottish Blackface

sheep as well as numerous wild animals e.g.

badgers, foxes, mountain hares, peregrines,

red grouse and black grouse.

Today the farm is run by Alistair and Susan

Cowan, following on from Alastair’s father

before them. Eastside is family farm business

with family members pitching in at busy

times when extra hands are needed.

Farming has changed significantly over the

last few years with the number of shepherds

on Eastside falling from four in 1982 to just

one in 2012 due to the tough economics of

modern agriculture. The All Terrain Vehicle

(or quad bike) has allowed for the welfare

standards to be maintained with one man

covering a much larger area than a shepherd

on foot did previously. At Eastside, the sheep

are virtually wild, enjoying a happy healthy free

range life on the hills.

The Cowans have managed and added to

the diversity of the environment at Eastside

through the planting of trees and wildflower

meadows and careful hill-ground management.

It is their hope to preserve and enhance the

spectacular Pentland Hill landscape at Eastside

for current and future generations to enjoy and


This booklet gives a brief insight into sheep

farming through the seasons at Eastside. We

hope you find it informative and enjoyable.

Image on front cover: Blackface ewe in the handling

pens at Eastside.

This page: Hill grasses on the East Kipp looking

onto the heather covered Scald Law.

Next page: Ewes and lambs gathered in preparation

for the sales.


Blackface sheep

The Heft

Blackface female sheep are very hardy

and can withstand almost all the weather

can, and frequently does, throw at them.

They are the most common in Britain but as

the majority of these are found in the wilder

parts of Scotland, many people may be

unfamiliar with the way they look. Both males

and females have horns, although the male

(or “tup”) horns are bigger as well as their

body mass. They generally have black faces

and a white body although sometimes they

have white or grey faces too - very rarely you

might see a totally black sheep! Their wool is

very thick and warm and this helps protect

them from the weather.

As on many hill farms, there are no fences

on the hill pasture to enclose or separate the

sheep. Instead of fences, an ancient system

called “hefting” is used. Each hill has it’s own

“heft” of sheep that live within a certain area

and they recognize this area as their home.

Sheep will instinctively gather in their family

groups and often several generations of a

sheep family can be seen together. Through

many years of being herded to the same

place, knowledge of the “heft” is passed from

one generation of sheep to the next so they

know where they belong and where they feel


For example, the Kipps have a heft of 150

breeding ewes with their hoggs (one year old

offspring that are too young to breed from). If

you visit Eastside you will see some fences and

traditional stone walls (dykes) near and around

the farmstead. These enclose “improved

pasture” fields in the valley area. The ewes will

come off the hill into the valley fields where

there is better grazing during the day but head

back out to the hill at night by themselves.

Hefting evens out the grazing pressure and

allows the grazing resources to be used

efficiently. If the sheep were not hefted, they

would just hang around the best grazing in the

valley all the time and use it all up!


Late Autumn

Late Autumn

Tupping Time

Just before tupping season when

hormones start to run high, the

tups are moved into the big

sheep-shed to keep them out of


This seems the most logical place to start

as it is when the male sheep, “tups”, are

brought together with the ewes to conceive

new lambs. The female sheep or ewes are in

the peak of health and condition at this time of

year from all the rich grazing they’ve consumed

in the summer. They will need all their extra fat

reserves for the winter to come and to provide

for themselves and the lambs growing inside


The ewes come into season in November (i.e.

they’re receptive to a potential mate) and will

start looking for a handsome tup. However we

decide when the tups are allowed in with the

ewes - this way we avoid early surprises and

plan for the lambs to be born when the weather

is warmer and there is good grazing to be had.

For much of the year you might see the tups

taking things easy in the field in front of our

house. Just before tupping season when

hormones start to run high, the tups are

moved into the big sheep-shed to keep them

out of mischief!

heavy the tups were snowed out on the hill,

eventually coming back a few weeks later - a

little tired but in good health. Consequently,

lambing went on for a long time that Spring!

When the time is right, each tup is allowed in

with his ewes. It’s important for us to make

sure that he stays in the right place and

doesn’t stray from his ground and his group

of 60-70 ewes. He’ll generally have about 6

weeks to “service” each ewe but with that

many there’s not much romance involved -

it’s hard work for him! Between Christmas

and New Year, the tups are brought back to

the sheep shed for a well-earned break. In

the winter of 2009/2010 the snow was so

Images on previous page: Eastside autumn flora,

Heather, bracken and hill grasses.

Images on this page from left: Blackface tups (or

rams), Blackface tups - the boys are just back from

5 weeks work on the hill.


Images clockwise from top left: Blackface Tup,

Hill grasses turn red in the autumn season, The

farm track on an autumn afternoon, Old “dykes”

or walls surrounding the farm, The Hare Hill sheep

going home as the sun sets after the gather, The

farm track looking towards the farm and the Kipps

behind, Old “dyke” with autumnal bracken.



Mid Winter

Ewes In Lamb

Gathering is quite a spectacle,

with each heft of several hundred

sheep rounded up by the quad

and sheep dogs and herded to

the farm handling pens.

Now that the ewes are “in lamb” they are

making the most of their hill environment.

The winter can be a harsh time at Eastside,

sometimes with deep snow or cold winds and

rain. Being in a cosy cottage toasting your toes

by the fire makes you appreciate that surviving

outdoors is a very different matter, requiring a

good knowledge of the local environment.

This essential knowledge is something that the

sheep at Eastside have passed from generation

to generation. In addition, the Blackface sheep

has an amazing wool fleece impregnated with

lanolin for waterproofing to ensure it’s warm all

winter. Each ewe has a whole hectare of grass

to herself (one and a half football pitches) and

she knows all the best places to find food and

shelter to ensure a good outcome for herself

and her lamb.

shepherd to concentrate his attention on.

The ewes are under regular surveillance and

by the end of March each heft is gathered up

by the shepherd using a quad bike and sheep

dogs and brought in to the handling pens for

a check-up. Gathering is quite a spectacle,

with each heft of several hundred sheep

rounded up by the quad and sheep dogs and

herded to the farm handling pens. By this

time it is obvious which ewes are in lamb and

which are not.

All of the ewes to lamb are brought into the

fields in the valley and the barren ewes and

the hoggs (last years lambs that are too

young to reproduce) are put back out onto

the hill. This leaves the pregnant ewes for the

Image on previous page: View from the Backhill,

South towards Ninemileburn.

Images on this page from left: Beech trees on a

sunny winter’s day, Sheep sheltering beneath the

larch and scots pines on the Blackhill.


Images clockwise from top left: Old beech tree

on the Blackhill, Christmas at Eastside, Line of

beech trees from the Blackhill fields, Walker

on the Pentland skyline (West Kipp behind the

farmstead) looking South along the Pentland range,

The view from the West Kipp of Eastside farmstead

and beyond towards the Moorfoots, Track down to

the yard and ‘Archie’, A winter sunset.


A rural wilderness, just

10 miles from Edinburgh




Most ewes are fortunate and their

lambs will come into the world

without any human intervention.

Within minutes the lamb will be

on its feet looking for a feed of

lovely warm milk.

Our ideal lambing time starts in mid April

when the weather has hopefully improved

and grass on our hills is growing well to ensure

a plentiful milk supply for the new lambs. The

gestation period (length of pregnancy) for a

lamb is 5 months so this is why it’s so important

to control when the tups are put with the ewes

in mid November.

Most ewes are fortunate and their lambs

will come into the world without any human

intervention. Within minutes the lamb will be

on its feet looking for a feed of lovely warm

first milk or “colostrum”. Colostrum, as well

as being like nectar to a new-born lamb is full

of antibodies and protects it from common


In a normal birth, the lamb emerges with head

and two front feet first and this is what usually

happens. Problems can arise when the lamb

enters the ewe’s birth canal wrongly, perhaps

with one leg or both of the lamb’s legs left

behind. Sometimes twins fight for supremacy

and stall the birthing process. In these cases,

intervention is required but the most difficult

part can be catching the ewe first! Even in

the process of giving birth, a ewe can outrun

a shepherd on foot so a quad bike and dogs

are essential. Fortunately, with the Blackface

breed, the majority of lambs are born without

any problems.

After a normal delivery, the ewe busily licks

the lamb and bonds with it. If this process is

disturbed, by a dog or a hill-walker frightening

the ewe away from her lamb then sadly all the

shepherd will find is a small, hungry orphan

that has to be brought in and bottle-fed in

the sheep-shed. Sometimes, with a bit of luck,

ewe and lamb can be reunited but it is all extra

hassle for the shepherd when he least needs it.

With problem births, the ewe and lamb will

often need to be brought into a small paddock

or the sheep shed. The lamb will need special

attention, especially if it’s exhausted after a

prolonged birth. The shepherd will help the

lamb to suckle milk from the ewe or, if it is very

Images on previous page: A Blackface lamb and a

meadow buttercup amongst the spring grasses.

Image on this page: Ewes and lambs on a sunny

spring day.


weak, he will milk the ewe and give the lamb

a reviving feed of colostrum with a tube fed

carefully down the lamb’s throat. After one

or two such feeds, the lamb revives and the

bonding process begins.

Sometimes, in spite of the shepherd’s best

efforts, a lamb is stillborn. The ewe will be

distressed and nudge the lamb in vain to

wake it. At the same time, another ewe may

have twin lambs but not enough milk for them

both. If this happens we can use a technique

called “twinning on”. It sounds gruesome

to describe but can ensure the successful

adoption of the twin with insufficient milk

from its mother. The dead lamb is skinned and

the skin placed on the twin lamb like a second

coat. This fools the dead lamb’s mother into

thinking it is her own. As the Blackface ewe

recognises her lamb mainly by smell, any lamb

that doesn’t smell right will be swiftly rejected

with a butt of the head. Placing the skin of the

dead lamb on the twin means it smells correct

to the mother and she’ll busily nuzzle and feed

her seemingly miraculously recovered offspring.

Even although it’s Spring, the sheep can

experience blizzard conditions. More frequently

there is a dusting of snow that melts quickly

but Blackface lambs are remarkably resilient

to harsh conditions and as long as they have

a belly full of milk, they will survive harsh

conditions quite happily.

Images on this page from left: The farm track at

sunset with ewe and lamb in the Blackhill fields for

observation, Once lambs are more robust they are

released onto the open hill. This ewe and lamb are

at the top of the West Kipp.


Images clockwise from top left: A golden spring

evening, Blackface ewes are very good mothers

always keeping an eye on their lambs, Lambs-aleaping,

The shepherd checking the ‘Low-End’

sheep with help from Jill the collie, Orphan lambs

or ‘pets’, The bigger orphans get trained to drink

from a milk bucket, Pied Wagtail chicks nest in a

gap in the dyke, A lamb needing some care in the





Marking & Clipping

Clipping is a highly skilled job

that requires much practice to

perfect. The trick is in keeping

the sheep comfortable at all

times otherwise they will struggle

- making it a very difficult and

exhausting job indeed!

All the ewes have lambed by mid May and

the lambs are growing well on the plentiful

grass. By June, they have quadrupled in size and

are robust enough to be gathered in with their

mothers for marking. It is only then that the

shepherd will know how successful a lambing

he/she has had as all the lambs produced from

each heft will be counted and tagged with the

farm’s unique code.

Wool clipping (sometimes known as shearing)

begins in June with the hoggs (the one year old

female sheep that are too young to reproduce)

first in line. The hoggs have had an easy time

compared to the ewes as they haven’t had to

produce and rear lambs. This means they start

to grow new wool more quickly. This layer of

fresh new wool between the skin and the old

wool is what the shearer will cut through to

make sure the wool is clipped quickly and

efficiently. It is called the “rise”. Clipping is a

highly skilled job that requires much practice

to perfect. The trick is in keeping the sheep

comfortable at all times otherwise they

will struggle - making it a very difficult and

exhausting job indeed!

By mid-July it is the ewes’ turn to be clipped.

With the arrival of the warm summer weather,

the ewes will be glad to get rid of their winter

coats and will have produced enough “rise”

to make the shearer’s job easy. Often just

before clipping, a ewe will get itchy and roll

onto her back to scratch but get stuck in that

position. If she stays like this she will perish

as the gases in her stomach can’t escape and

build up until she suffocates. Turning her over

resolves this problem very simply - she will

burp heartily then run off!

The newly clipped wool will be rolled up and

packed into large wool bags called “sheets”

for transporting to the Wool Marketing Board.

They will sell it on to make carpets. Blackface

wool is abundant but coarse so this is the best

use for it. Rolling up fleeces will give you lovely

soft hands as the wool is full of “lanolin”, an

oily substance in the fleece which waterproofs

the wool and keeps the animal dry. Lanolin is

extracted from the wool in the washing process

and used in making moisturising face and hand



Images on previous page from left: Clipping is a

highly skilled job, Harebells in hill pasture.

Images clockwise from top left: Sheep are

gathered from hefts individually for marking and

clipping, During marking lambs are marked and

given a health check, Jill helps out, In summer sheep

are clipped (sheared) for their wool, Wild orchids,

The Blackface tups (rams) after a close shave, Wildflower



Early Autumn

At this time of year, sheep numbers on the

farm will be nearly 3000. Our next job is

to sell many of the now well grown lambs and

some of the ewes. This is to reduce the flock

grazing on the hill to a number that can be

healthily sustained during the winter.

Early Autumn

Sheep Sales

After a full year at Eastside, many

ewes will have a fine ewe-lamb to

join their hefts on the hill and the

cycle will begin all over again.

All ewes will have been born on the farm and

then live here for five years. When they are five,

they’ve had enough of their hard life on the hill

and will be sold to a low-ground farmer where

they will live and breed for another few years.

Within the UK, there operates a tiered breeding

system to ensure the supply of prime lamb.

This system starts with upland breeds such

as Blackface. Once the upland sheep are sold

to lower farms for breeding, they are crossed

with other breeds (e.g. Bluefaced Leicester)

for increased yields of wool and meat. This

system has been perfected over hundreds of

years and is the envy of much of the world.

If an Eastside ewe has produced a good ewelamb,

the lamb will be kept as a replacement

for the old ewes moving down to pastures

new. About half of the total number of

ewe-lambs born are kept as replacements.

Otherwise, the ewe-lambs will be sold at the

market to another upland farm for breeding.


After a full year at Eastside, many ewes will

have a fine ewe-lamb to join their hefts on the

hill and the cycle will begin all over again.

When a ewe has produced a fine, strong

male lamb, the lamb may be kept as a tup for

breeding. However, most of the male lambs

are sold as “store lambs” at the market to low

ground farmers who fatten them for meat

Images on previous page: Hay store from the

Eastside track looking towards the Kipps.

Images on this page from left: Shepherd sorts the

stock, Sheep await marking in the ‘stack yard’.


Images clockwise from top left: Blackface tup

in the sale ring, Bought tups return to Eastside,

Autumn seed heads on the hill, Ewes are sorted

for the tupping, Harebells flower on the hill, Autumn

light from the farm track looking towards the ‘Low

End’, Lambs are ready for the sales.


Susan Cowan

Eastside Holiday Cottages

Penicuik | Midlothian

EH26 9LN

01968 677 842



All photography copyright of

Michael Rummey photography,

Graphic design by Tigerchick

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