LEAVING home at just 17 years of age to move 450 miles north to farm some 470 acres of decidedly rough, exposed hill ground around Muirkirk, is a huge step, but it is one which David Cooper has taken in his stride and wouldn’t change for the world.

Sixteen years later, David and his wife, Cora, are the proud owners of Cooper Farms, a 5000-acre hill unit which is not only home to 3200 Welsh Mountain, Herdwick and Badgerface Welsh Mountain ewes but also a fencing enterprise and a new agri-tourism venture.

It’s not been an easy move though. Their initial farm at Tardoes required a huge amount of investment as the farmhouse had been not been lived in for years and most of the windows had been smashed in, while 150 acres of so-called in-bye ground were very much scarred by open cast mining. Furthermore, both the in-bye and hill ground had to be fenced.

“I pretty much camped for the first six months because the house was so bad,” laughed David, who added that he never missed home, friends or family, when there was so much to do from day one.

Born and brought up on a beef and sheep unit in Dartmoor, he did nevertheless take a few items from the family farm to remind him of home, including 350 Herdwick and Welsh Mountain ewes.

“Herdwicks are the hardiest sheep you’ll get in that they can be out wintered and lambed on some of the poorest, wettest, peat ground without any feeding and produce scanning percentages of 100-115% on the hill and up to 200% on better lowground fields.

“Welsh Mountains are also really hardy sheep and slightly easier fleshed but they prefer hill ground that is slightly drier and therefore will produce scanning percentages of 105-145%,” added David, pointing out that his hills are made up of a mixture of raised peat bogs, rushes, white molinia grassland and heather.

Lambing kicks off here on April 25, but all bar twin-bearing ewes which are lambed in fields, are left to lamb by themselves on the hill.

With limited in-bye ground, David prefers ewes to carry single lambs only and for this reason, twin-born ewe lambs are never retained for breeding.

No feeding is provided pre or post lambing, with the first of the lambs sold off grass from the beginning of August onwards deadweight, through Farmstock. Most of these are sold lightweight to average 12kg and sold for both the home and European markets, which in the past have averaged just shy of £40 per head.

It’s not a lot of money, but input costs are next to nothing when you think – thanks to their breeding – ewes and lambs do not require vaccinating, with lambs receiving just one worm drench at clipping time and a second at weaning at the end of August beginning of September. Ewes do, though, have to be drenched for fluke twice a year.

Soil health on the farm is also a very important part of the flock’s health, with pH levels closely monitored to ensure the sheep are getting the best out of the land.

With no concentrate feeding, ewes hold their teeth better too, with the result being there are more to sell as drafts privately, to an increasing number of producers eager to reduce input costs. However, David admitted that breeding such characteristics is becoming more difficult when sourcing stock rams with good mouths is more of a challenge year on year.

Most years the business buys 16/17 new rams per year, which run in batches from December 1, when they are put out with the ewes right through until shearing at the beginning of July.

“I look to buy tups bred on a hard hill with good short teeth, a deep chest and a wiry coat. The more wiry the coat is, the hardier the sheep are, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy tups that are bred on hard hills,” he said, adding that Herdwicks are bought in Cockermouth with Welsh Mountains purchased at a breed sale in Dolgellau, Wales, at £500-£600 and £300-£400, respectively.

“I don’t see the point in spending a lot of money on tups when we are purely commercial. I’m not really looking for my sheep to be of show quality, as long as they thrive. Life is complicated enough without trying to breed tups to sell too, although we are looking to maybe start a stud flock, but only to breed home-bred rams to use.”

Having spent several years culling out health and feet problems, weaning percentages are pretty good. Over the years, David has virtually eliminated difficult lambings, poor milkers and lameness which, coupled with a massive peatland restoration programme funded by the RSPB and Co-operation Across Border Biodiversity (CABB) projects has seen the re-profiling of 100 miles-worth of deep ditches where sheep could easily fall to their peril. In turn, mortality rates have been reduced.

The project, to restore forested peatland at RSPB Airds Moss and peatland on estates and privately owned farms, in partnership with farmers and land managers, was also for habitat management and demonstration on RSPB managed land and advisory to upland land managers.

Large sections of the moorland are Scottish National Heritage Priority 1 peatland of national importance and more than 70% of the SPA blanket bog has been modified through gripping or erosion.

As a result, there are no longer the deep gulleys which sheep could fall into or where foxes could hide in to prey on young lambs.

Add to that, fencing the entire farm himself from scratch and not only has David built himself an easier managed sheep enterprise, but also one that is almost profitable without Basic Farm Payment.

In has, nevertheless, been the fencing that has enabled the business to grow faster than anticipated, as having completed some 55km or more than 34 miles of field boundaries at home, David is now regularly asked to do local work and is now away from home four days a week fencing.

“Fencing has been a vital part in the growth of the business and really, happened purely by accident, when I had to do so much fencing here. I’m now known as the local fencing contractor,” he laughed.

Not finished there, David and Cora also have a new venture on the go, Dippal Lodge, for their first move into agri-tourism. For those looking to get right away from it all and into the heart of real hill-ground, there’s nowhere like it too. Well worth a look.