Sheep focus: Success with Suffolks at Malin Head

Farming on the island of Ireland’s most northerly point – Malin Head – the Doherty family has been breeding pedigree Suffolk sheep since the late 1980s.

Described as a farm to suit only ‘horned ewes’ and ‘no place for Suffolks’, the Dohertys have persevered with the breed to much success at society sales throughout the years.

AgriLand recently made the trip to Co. Donegal to see first hand how brothers Martin and JJ Doherty run the operation, which is home to a flock of 80 pedigree Suffolk ewes.


The flock was established by John Doherty – Martin and JJ’s father – in 1988. Faced with the decision of either going down the Suffolk or Texel route, John sought the advice of a local butcher who assured him that he had yet to see a breed to outperform the Suffolk.

It was through the purchasing of female stock from some of the country’s top flocks – namely from Willy Montgomery, James Gourley and Robert Burns – that the backbone of Malinhead Suffolks was formed.

From this, the Dohertys have developed a Suffolk flock that’s capable of withstanding the testing conditions often experienced at Malin Head.

Martin pictured with some of the ewes on a ‘drying-off paddock’ on the farm in Malin Head, Co. Donegal

The breeding policy

After using AI to breed a number of ewes within the flock over recent years, the brothers decided to use AI to mate 50 pedigree Suffolk ewes last August.

“50 ewes were mated on August 13 with semen from our own stock rams – including Malinhead Special One – and the ewes started to lamb on January 6. The remaining ewes were mated naturally and the final ewe lambed on April 5.

Malinhead Special One, one of the sires used on the Dohertys’ flock in 2017 and the current Irish Homebred Sire of the Year

“We were extremely happy with the scan percentage this year and the flock scanned at 1.9 lambs per ewe joined. It would usually sit around 1.7, but the ewes were a little bit stronger last year,” Martin noted.

The primary focus on the flock is to produce ram lambs for breeding – either by other pedigree breeders or commercial farmers.

On this, Martin said: “We look to produce a long, wide sheep, with a good back, width and carcass. The carcass is very important as that’s what the Suffolk is bred for.

However, we also look to breed a lamb with a good skin, head, legs and style. Style is very important for customers buying a ram to breed ewes.

“They want a ram that looks the part and, hopefully, that will pass down to his daughters.”

Although some farmers associate Suffolk sheep with poor dagginess scores, the Dohertys have endeavored to resolve this by being selective with the female lines down through the years; they’ve culled any ‘dirty’ ewes from the flock.

Ram sales

On an annual basis, Martin and JJ sell approximately 40-45 ram lambs through society sales – namely the Roscrea Premier Sale and the Donegal Pedigree Suffolk Sheep Breeders’ Sale – and from the yard.

Down through the years, some notable tups have been sold from the Donegal-based holding, including: Mercedes Benz; Ice Cold Gold; Major Impact; and New Approach, all of which bear the Malinhead prefix.

Malinhead Ice Cold Gold sold for 2,700gns and sired a Balmoral Champion

Back in 2013, Malinhead Ice Cold Gold sold to G. Beacom, G. Troup and J. De Rock for 2,700gns. Currently standing in Belgium, he went on to sire the Male Champion at the Balmoral Show.

Malinhead Mercedes Benz is another notable graduate of the Dohertys’ breeding programme. In 2014, he placed fourth in the Open Ram Lamb class and sold to A. Loftus for 4,800gns.

More recently, the brothers have experienced success with Malinhead Elite, the top-priced ram lamb at the Blessington Show and Sale. He sold to S. Govin for 2,600gns.

In addition, another ram from the Dohertys’ stable placed third at the National Championships & Sale at Blessington Mart in 2017 and he achieved the joint top price on the day.

The joint top-priced ram lamb at the 2017 National Championships & Sale at Blessington Mart

Preparing for the year ahead

Over recent days, Martin and JJ have weaned the January-born lambs from their dams and they’re currently being offered grass and some creep.

As the sales dates draw closer – particularly the Premier Show & Sale in Roscrea Mart, which is due to take place on August 4 – the brothers will put the final touches on the ram lambs with concentrates.

Meanwhile, all of the female stock will be run commercially and will receive “no special treatment” throughout the remainder of the year.

When asked why he puts the finishing touches on the lambs with creep, Martin explained: “It’s really to put a bloom on the lambs prior to sale.

“Farmers might say they’re interested in purchasing a grass-fed ram; but when you bring them out to a sale, they have to have received meal to make money,” he concluded.