Having finished their first lambing season at 900-acre Nether Laggan Farm on the Barwillanty Estate in the Galloway Hills and learnt a lot, Tim and Louise Cooke are now working closely with their vet on pro-active flock health and breeding improvements.

Tim and Louise moved to Kircudbrightshire from Hampshire at the end of 2021 – inheriting 900 EasyCare ewes plus 250 home-bred replacement ewe lambs across the holding’s mix of upland and hill ground, as well as 120 red deer.

Their EasyCare ewes started lambing outside mid-March – coincidentally and challengingly the day after they moved into their new house. Louise admits the experience was quite an eye opener.

“We’ve always lambed inside before so this was certainly a new experience for us both, but fortunately the weather was kind, being dry and mild the whole way through,” she says.

“However, it was strange not having to do night checks – although getting a good night’s sleep during lambing is amazing – but we did feel a little out of control, which we both found difficult.

“We relied a lot on early morning checks around the lambing fields, but when you go around and find that things haven’t gone well – and even have to pick up the odd dead lamb – it’s tough. You can’t help thinking that if one of us had been there, perhaps we could have intervened, but I guess that’s all part and parcel of an outdoor lambing system.”

Early on, the Cookes unfortunately found themselves having to deal with a flurry of prolapses, which was also stressful.

“Quite possibly this was because we moved them into the well grassed lambing fields, at a low stocking rate, two to three weeks before lambing, and the ewes ended up doing a little too well late on perhaps,” Louise said.

As it was, they both felt they had to cope with a variety of lambing and health issues in about 100 of the 900 ewes.

“So not so ‘easy care’ perhaps this first season,” Tim says. “But we can certainly improve the system. Thankfully, we saw very little watery mouth but did have some joint ill cases, which is always disappointing – and being outside it’s very hard to catch the lambs at more than 24 hours old to treat their navels.”

However, lameness problems were by far the biggest issue. “The ewes’ feet are in a bad state and they definitely suffered during lambing,” says Louise. “What’s distressing is the fact that because of our varied terrain, they are so difficult to catch and treat too.

“We will cull hard this summer – both in the gimmer replacement group and amongst the older ewes. Anything that needs more than two treatments will have to go and we plan to vaccinate everything, including the tups, against footrot during dry weather later in the summer.

“We recognise that it will take time to get on top of things, but we can’t be doing with managing lame sheep on either welfare or cost of production grounds. The estate owner Oscar Yerburgh doesn’t like to see lame sheep either and is supportive of the plan to stamp it out.”

Early in May, the Cooke’s vet Gareth Boyes, from the Ark Veterinary Group, visited Nether Laggan Farm to review lambing performance and draw up a new flock health plan.

Read more: New checklist-based audit tool from MSD Animal Health to help improve flock health on GB sheep farms

Early priorities are to treat the sheep for flystrike, start faecal egg counting and develop a new worming strategy including for fluke. “We are very worried about potential resistance issues,” says Louise, and to blood test any aborting/barren ewes to screen for any underlying disease problems such as enzootic abortion (EAE) and/or toxoplasmosis.

“We will also start the replacements on the Heptavac® P Plus system and vaccinate the fat lambs with Ovivac® P Plus,” says Louise.

Tim is also focusing on soil status and flock mineral health.

“Previously the farm sold mainly store lambs, but we’d like to finish more off our own ground – but it seems to lack something. Gareth has already advised us to administer a cobalt and selenium drench whenever we bring them in.

“I’ve already decided to sow some fodder rape in July and will use that in the autumn, plus focus on improving our grassland. We’ve been liming a lot and have already tested 20 fields for their mineral status – we certainly want to be more focused with our fertiliser policy and hopefully save cost here,” he says.

Tim added that they are also looking at their ‘EasyCare’ breeding policy and considering the composite Exlana breed. "They are wool shedding, very maternal and produce plenty of milk, whilst being low input sheep. We will also be looking for good feet and teeth, as well as high worm resistance and, naturally, the ability to produce good finished lambs,” he said

Tim and Louise Cooke are ambassadors for the MSD Animal Health Disease? Not on My Farm! initiative. Look out for quarterly updates in Scottish Farmer as the Cooke family tackles the challenge of taking on this new farm and flock management opportunity.