The following is an edited extract from Jane Cooper’s new book The Lost Flock (Chelsea Green Publishing, Sept 2023) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
What is it about a place that speaks to us so powerfully? I know something of that from my response to first visiting Orkney, which went so far beyond curiosity and interest. It is the feeling I have, every time I look at the view down the hill from the house, every time I see the farm in the distance as I drive up the hill towards it, that I am inexplicably rooted here in Orkney.
My little flock expanded in November 2013 when Bob told me about a ram lamb for sale from a Boreray flock in the Highlands that had started with sheep from Bob. I got in touch with the owner and the young ram came with two companions. Older males that had been castrated as lambs, known locally as ‘wedders’ rather than the more commonly used ‘wethers’. Having been left out of the fun of helping to name my first five lambs, my adult children decided they would name my new ram lamb. I told them that the name had to begin with B, and ideally it should reflect his future as a breeding ram. This is where I warn everyone not to give such wide freedom to their adult children. The name they presented to me was Bollocks. Yes, they were expecting me to go out in my fields, possibly within earshot of my neighbours, and shout, ‘Bollocks’. However, when I first saw this young ram, packed full of attitude, the name did actually seem a good fit for him, and I do love my children. So, Bollocks he was, and he quickly made it clear to Boris that he was ‘top ram’.
Autumn 2014 was exciting for seeing the first female Borerays join the flock. Two groups, both from small flocks in the Highlands that had got all their sheep originally from Bob and Ann. There were two ewes, two gimmers (one-year-old females that hadn’t had a lamb yet), a much older ewe, Millie, that had been bred by Bob, seven ewe lambs and a young ram I called Bede. Choosing a Northumbrian saint’s name was my response to the children calling my second ram Bollocks!
I also paid another trip to Bob and Ann and collected a beautiful ram lamb, Gerald, from a different line to Boris, and a couple more wether lambs. For the first time, I could start breeding Borerays. We decided, having seen how late our spring grass had been to get going compared to neighbours down the hill, to aim for lambs being born in May. Counting back the 147 days of an average sheep pregnancy, we separated the ewes and gimmers from the lambs and put them in a separate field. I decided that Bede was to be the lucky ram that year and I wanted to use raddle so I could tell when he’d tupped a ewe during the thirty-six hours or so when she was on heat and ready to accept a mate; Raddle is a coloured powder you mix with cooking oil to make a thick paste, which you put on the ram’s chest between his front legs. As he mounts the ewe some of this paste is transferred to her rear back. Now, in my ignorance, I rather overdid the raddle on Bede. And with him being a young ram that had never tupped a ewe before, his enthusiasm was greater than his experience. The first female to come into season, Beryl, was a gimmer, so she was also more enthusiastic than experienced. It took Bede a few attempts to assume the correct mating position at the rear end of the ewe. The abundance of bright yellow paste meant he ended up with a completely yellow front end and Beryl was yellow from head to tail.
After tupping comes lambing, and I took the one-day work- shop on lambing at Northvet. I came away knowing what equipment I needed to have in case any ewes needed assistance and with a very useful booklet giving the normal timings for the different stages of labour and lambing. What I didn’t know at the time was that none of my sheep had read the booklet!
May arrived and Paul disappeared south for a few days for a work-related meeting he had to attend. I was on my own. Beryl’s possible due date came and went. On 13 May during the morning, I noticed that Hilary looked preoccupied. She wasn’t grazing. There was a lot of pacing around the small lambing field, then standing still gazing into the distance. I was sure things were stirring. Unfortunately, so was the weather. As the darkness of evening came, so did strong winds and lashing rain, forecast to last all night. I couldn’t catch Hilary on my own, nor would she be comfortable if I kept going out to try and check her with a torch. The lambing booklet was consulted for the umpteenth time. If Hilary had the lamb during the night, it would be fine if it suckled well within the first six hours. So, I worked out that if I allowed myself one check on her at around 1am, I’d be able to see any newborn lamb(s) before it was six hours old.
Finally, at last, 1am came and I allowed myself to venture out with a strong torch. In the dark, sheep eyes glow in torchlight. I spotted all the sheep but Hilary well tucked up in the shelter of long rushes. Going round the corner of the field where there was nothing to mitigate the easterly wind blasting up the hill, I saw the glow of four eyes, one pair belonging to a tiny lamb standing strongly next to Hilary, both with their backs to the wind. I couldn’t take a photograph in those conditions, but the image of the new mother and her first lamb standing defiantly in the storm remains clearly with me even now seven years later.
A difficult decision, though. Should I leave them for four or five more hours out there in the storm until the delayed daylight of bad weather? Hilary, perhaps because she was inexperienced, had picked one of the least sheltered places to have her first lamb. We did have a couple of little shelters in the field that we thought would give the ewes more choice of sheltered spots for them and their lambs, one not too far from Hilary and the lamb. With too many options going through my mind, no experience to guide me and not having the self-confidence to completely trust Bob’s advice that the ewes and lambs would be fine and would seek shelter if needed, I quickly decided to pick up the lamb by the front legs and put it in the shelter. I hoped Hilary would follow so they would both be out of the weather, but even if she didn’t, the lamb would be fine out of the driving cold rain and I could sort things out in the morning. I took just seconds to move the lamb, not touching the body to avoid any of my scent going on it, then I moved as far away as possible while still being able to just make out Hilary in the faint light of the torch that I was careful to point away from her. With gut-churning relief, after fearing I’d made the wrong choice and totally messed things up, I saw her walking towards the shelter and her lamb. I left them in peace and went back into the house to dry off and go back to bed.
The storm passed quicker than forecast and by 5am it was dry and light. I could see Hilary and her lamb from the bedroom window, both looking fine. I got a container with a few beet nuts as a treat for Hilary and to enable me to get as close as possible to her and her new lamb. She tucked in enthusiastically and I was rewarded with the sight of the lamb squatting to pee – it was a female. Many photos later and I left them in peace as the weather improved still further and the sun emerged. The first ever Boreray lamb born in Orkney. I named her Dorah.