The life of a farmer is regulated by seasons; not just spring, summer, autumn and winter but also the annual tasks and events that mark the working year. There’s the sowing season, the lambing season, the Agricultural Show season and so on. For sheep breeders early autumn means only one thing – the Tup Sale season.
So what is a tup? Simply, it’s an uncastrated male sheep. Farming terms can be baffling to anyone outside the industry, and this ancient word for a complete ram has been used since the Middle Ages. It follows that ‘tupping’ is when the ram is put to the ewes. Many male lambs are castrated and these are known as wethers. They are less aggressive than tups and, because they can’t reproduce, can be kept with the ewes. Rams, meanwhile, are kept apart for obvious reasons – until it’s tupping time, of course. A great deal depends on the sheep breeder spotting the rams’ potential; the genetic future of the flock and the farm’s income down the line both rely on robust, virile tups.
To kelso market
The biggest and best known Tup Sale in the UK takes place at Kelso in Roxburghshire. This lovely border town on the banks of the Tweed with its famous cobbled market square is a busy place at the best of times. But when the ram sales take place every autumn, there’s a bit of a carnival atmosphere as breeders and dealers pour in to the area, not to mention curious onlookers. The Kelso sale can trace its history back to the late 1830s when the typical price paid for a ram was between three and six pounds. Today a top quality pedigree ram can fetch well over £10,000.
Teeth, toes and testicles
A few years ago on Countryfile, we filmed a sequence about buying tups as a way of giving viewers an insight into what breeders look for when choosing a new ram to service their ewes. Since then I’ve been asked about it many times. It seems that ‘The three Ts’ struck a chord!
A good way of ensuing the new ram will do its job properly is to check for healthy teeth, toes and testicles. Just like humans, strong teeth and a clean, unblemished mouth are a decent indication of good overall health. Toes and feet with unbroken skin and no signs of infection are a must; a lame ram is no good to anyone. While the bigger the testicles, the better the chances of productive sperm, they should also be evenly sized. At every Tup Sale you’ll spot potential buyers down at the ‘business end’, measuring the ram’s scrotum.
Picking a prize specimen
When they are happy that ‘The three Ts’ are in good working order and that the animal’s records are up to scratch, there are just a couple of final checks before the tup enters the sale ring. Is it the right age, does it have the right conformation (shape) and is it the correct colour? If it ticks all the boxes, then it’s simply a case of joining the other bidders and hoping you can stay within your budget!
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