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Interview: Jane Cooper, farmer, shepherd

06 October 2023

‘Most people buy their meat packaged in supermarkets, and never think where it came from, and how’

The original plan was to have a small group of sheep I’d keep almost as pets for their fleece. But we bought a house with more land than I needed, and one of my fleece wethers — castrated males — was deemed too good to castrate.

The children had grown up, and we’d been taking holidays in Orkney. My husband was a consultant anaesthetist, and a job came up for him. We decided to take the plunge.

The sheep I brought into Orkney from the Scottish Highlands are a breed called Boreray, after the island in St Kilda where there’s a feral flock. They’re the UK’s rarest breed of sheep, belonging to the family of Northern European short-tailed sheep — very different in size, shape, and appearance from modern sheep breeds. They’ve hardly changed since Neolithic farmers bought them to Britain, about 6000 years ago.

Chelsea Green Publishing asked me if I’d write The Lost Flock to tell the story of the sheep, after one of the editors heard me talk about them at an online event. There are several interwoven strands in the book, including the history of primitive sheep, the history of Boreray sheep since the mid-20th century, and my involvement with them in the past ten years.

It’s difficult to talk about keeping a flock in the UK without mentioning farming practices and regulation, which are such a huge part of a farmer’s life.

An important message in the book is that of how we interact with each other in the Orkney Boreray Community with principles of fair trade. Everyone has the opportunity for a dignified livelihood without anyone making unfair profits. I was inspired to adopt this, when I set up the Orkney Boreray Community, by my faith, and the writings of Colin Tudge’s The Great Re-Think and Chris Smaje’s A Small Farm Future.

I hope it encourages readers to think about adopting similar ways of working, as appropriate for them, even within the capitalist UK.

The only way we can secure the future of this subgroup of extremely rare sheep — fewer than 300 registered breeding ewes in whole breed when I started keeping them — is by making it profitable to keep them. Many rare breeds are kept by enthusiasts who finance their upkeep themselves, but this wasn’t an option in Orkney if we were going to involve more farmers, crofters, and smallholders. For sheep, the main income comes from selling meat; in our case, mutton from sheep at least two years old.

Most people buy their meat packaged in supermarkets, and never think where it came from, and how. UK regulations mean that they should be able to buy safe meat, with a little extra information on the labels for those who want it. It’s important to us that we use a small abattoir which provides the highest levels of good welfare and stress-free handling, which also affects the quality of the meat. When Orkney lost its island abattoir in 2018, this was a massive welfare and economic issue for us all, with almost every other small-scale producer of specialist or rare breed meat going under. It almost broke me.

While all agriculture and horticulture involves the death of invertebrates, meat requires an animal to die. Historically, killing and ending a life was sacred ritual. For some societies today, this still exists. It’s what I feel.

We gladly take on the time and expense of taking the sheep ourselves, from all the Orkney Boreray Community farmers, to the abattoir in mainland Scotland. We shepherd them with as much care at the end of their life as for the whole of the rest of their lives. It’s also important, as respect for the life of each sheep, that as little as possible is wasted. Regulations prevent us from using as much as we’d like, but we have the necessary licence to handle horns and skins for the organic tannery we work with, and a craftsman who works with the horns.

I learnt to knit at a young age. It was cheaper to produce your own clothes, then. Old sweaters could be unravelled and wool reused for new garments. At junior school, in the 1960s, there were still lessons in handicrafts for those who hadn’t learnt them at home. Spinning came a lot later, born from my interest in the varieties of wool from different breeds, and wanting to go beyond what was available to buy as knitting yarn. Both crafts also have a social element.

Yes, we should be using wool for clothes, including school uniforms, and carpets, for every reason. It’s a message I’m constantly pushing through the Woolsack social media. Sadly, the price that synthetic and cotton can be produced at, ignoring the environmental cost, is far less than the price of finished wool products. It isn’t cheap to process raw fleece into wool, but the products wear better and last far longer.

Many of Britain’s upland sheep produce robust, resilient fleece, which is perfect for carpets. Hotels and cruise liners want pure-wool carpeting because of its resilience, so it will look good for a long time, but also its natural anti-flammability. Many bought jumpers are synthetic, or a blend of materials, and pure wool for hand-knitting tends now to be higher quality. My husband and I have wool sweaters that are decades old, still regularly worn, and still look good. At the final end of their life, they can be felted to create a new robust fabric, or added to the compost.

I give every individual sheep the highest level of care, as does everyone in the Orkney Boreray Community. Our customers appreciate that this involves slightly higher costs for us that we have to pass on in the products we sell. Our love and care for our sheep isn’t only a commercial consideration: we’re all human, and have favourites. A few older ewes retired from breeding are kept as nannies, looking after lambs after they’ve had to be separated from their mothers, either after natural weaning or when the ewes go to the rams for tupping.

I’ve no single experience of God from childhood and attending church that I can identify. I had a period of atheism in my teens, and I was allowed to refuse confirmation at 13. I accepted Jesus as my personal Saviour at university, and met my husband at a Christian Union event.

We became part of our local church community, and I found enormous benefit from belonging to church groups. For a few years, we were home-group leaders. When we moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, we chose a house within walking distance of our church.

The metaphor of the Good Shepherd is still potent. I’ve had the experience of a lost lamb, and the immense effort to find her on an area of moorland. She’d got herself stuck down a narrow, deep, straight-sided ditch; so she couldn’t be seen unless you were looking down on her. Looking for her was the most urgent thing I did that day, even though her financial worth wasn’t great.

I lead them to fresh grazing as they follow me, with my calls of “Come on”, which isn’t only important for their health and growth, but a pleasure for them. I take pruned tree branches for them to enjoy browsing the leaves. I care for them, observing their behaviour and mood and doing everything I can to give them the best quality of life.

I enjoy singing in choirs, knitting, spinning, and weaving, and doing these activities with other people. I’d like to build a replica Viking loom and weave on that, and devote more time to growing vegetables and fruit. I’d like to plant a lot more trees — not easy when windy Orkney means they grow slowly. I love choral Requiem settings, and the sound of flowing water in the burns on the farm.

It makes me angry that indigenous groups around the world who’ve looked after their land for many generations are being driven off so the wealthy can turn it into wildlife theme parks or appropriate the resources.

I’m happy being with family and friends, communing with nature, just being with my sheep as they graze.

Younger members of the Orkney Boreray Community give me great hope for the future and the sustainable management of the land they own or rent. And because people of all ages and backgrounds are standing up for what is right and just, such as the brave women of Iran protesting against the enforced wearing of the hijab.

I pray for my family, justice in the world, loving stewardship of God’s created world, and financial support to enable Orkney to have an abattoir again.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Colin Tudge. In The Great Re-Think: A 21st century Renaissance, he explores convivial societies in a flourishing biosphere, including quotes from Cardinal Newman: “We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe”; and St Augustine: “Do not wander far and wide but return into yourself. Deep within man there dwells the truth.”


Jane Cooper was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Lost Flock is published by Chelsea Green at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-1-91529-413-5.

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