Gill Sherry

David Cooper was only 17 years old when he first started sheep farming at a 472 acre farm in Muirkirk. The farmhouse had previously been abandoned and, as a result, had no heating, hot water or windows. Undeterred, David was determined to make a success of his new venture.

Originally starting as a family partnership founded in 2003, having established that his future was definitely in sheep farming, David soon bought the other partners out.

“David always thought there was a different way to do things,” his wife, Cora, tells me, “and that sheep farming didn’t have to be complicated. If you could go back to the basics of sheep farming from generations ago, it could be a much simpler system.”

With this in mind, David selected the sheep with the characteristics and qualities he was looking for and began to work towards a system of low maintenance sheep production.
“Those are the origins of the flock that we now have today,” says Cora.

That flock is made up of 2,000 Herdwick and 3,000 Welsh Mountain sheep and inevitably keeps the couple very busy. In fact, David is erecting a fence as we speak, despite the fierce wind.

Listening to Cora speak about the farm, it would be easy to assume she’s from a farming background herself, but that’s not the case.

“I was a PR and events manager,” she informs me. “We got married two years after meeting and had our first child a year later. At that time, it wasn’t feasible for me to go back to my job. We didn’t have any childcare so we decided at that stage to go into partnership together. For me, as a woman, it was really important to still have my own independence and identity. That involved me coming into the business in my own right.”

Cora converted an abandoned lunch hut into Dippal Lodge, a luxury off grid bolt hole.

“David always gave me the space to learn and try things differently, he’s very supportive. As a business we are constantly adapting and evolving.”

This prompts me to ask about their innovative and sustainable practices which led to them being awarded Sheep Farmer of the Year 2023 by Farmers Weekly.

“What we do is different to most sheep farm businesses. We’re striving to have one single lamb rather than twins. Out on the hill it’s a very harsh environment and if a ewe has one lamb it’s much easier for that ewe to produce milk and to look after that lamb. So our whole aim is to try and reduce the amount of stress on the sheep.”

The couple also limit the amount of gathers per year and don’t provide the animals with any supplementary feed, confident the sheep are getting all the nutrition they need from wild hill grazing.

“We also try not to assist with lambing. Obviously, sometimes we do have to assist, but David has bred the flock to be at this stage where the majority of them lamb unassisted. And we never breed from twins which helps us to try and reduce the number of twins.”

It’s taken a very long period of time and very selective breeding for the flock to reach this stage, but David and Cora are happy with both their farming methods and the results. And rightly so, they have devised one of the lowest-input sheep farming systems in the UK.

“That’s the beauty of agriculture and farming,” Cora adds. “It’s so individual and tailored to your particular land and your life. This works for us but it wouldn’t necessarily work for others. I think that’s why farming is so exciting to work in, it’s so varied. Every farm is unique and every system is different.”

Of course, farming also has its challenges, which Cora is quick to acknowledge.

“Every aspect of life is difficult, but you have to take the positives from it. There’s no other job where I could have had three children and no childcare! But for us, the work life balance is something we’re very conscious of. We have young children and they won’t always be young. We need to make the most of this time while they are at these ages and stages. David and I are both here most evenings to eat together as a family and to put them all to bed. That’s the thing that we value the most.”

It’s also important to David and Cora that the farm stays in the family.

“We’ve been able to expand the farm over the years to 5,000 acres. As first generation land owners that’s something we’re really proud of. I would be very surprised if none of the children followed in our farming footsteps. They are very much involved in farming, it’s a way of life. And we’re really conscious of the example we set our children. We want them to have a happy childhood and to remember that they saw their parents a lot. That’s important if we want them to follow into farming.”

I don’t think there’s any doubt about their eldest child’s farming ambitions.

“He has his own sheepdog and his own quad bike, he would happily go out to work every day. But he doesn’t view it as work, he just thinks he’s living his best life.”

And it’s obvious from the way Cora talks about farming that she loves it too.

“It’s the opportunity to be outside all the time and to see how the land changes over the year. That’s what I love the most. I’m very passionate about it. I really believe in what we’re doing.”

Part of the farm was once an opencast coal site. Through regenerative grazing and lots of hard work from the Coopers, you’d never guess that the lush green fields were once a large black scar on the landscape.

Also, as well as low maintenance sheep production, David and Cora have carried out over 2,000 acres of peatland restoration.

“If you restore peatland, it sequesters a lot more carbon than open, degraded peat. It’s an example of how agriculture and environmental concerns can work together. They don’t have to be detrimental to each other. Agriculture and livestock can play a really important part in Scotland’s ambitions to be greener.”

Speaking of ambitions, Cora has recently joined the committee for Women in Agriculture Scotland, something she’s clearly very enthusiastic about.

“I think as farmers we need to do more to educate the public about what we do. I definitely think that’s something we need to get better at. That’s what David and I are really passionate about, trying to promote the positive side of agriculture because there are so many positives.”

The Coopers were up against some tough competition at the Farmers Weekly Awards. Having heard their story, it’s no surprise they came back with the prize.