As Tim and Louise Cooke look forward to their third lambing season at Nether Laggan Farm on the 5000-acre Barwhillanty Estate in Kirkcudbrightshire, they are feeling optimistic about their farming future.

An ambitious move from Hampshire to Scotland early in 2022 has worked out well for the farming couple and their young family. And with several successful flock changes bedding in nicely, they believe now is the time for consolidation.

“When we inherited the established estate flock, we really weren’t sure what to expect from that first lambing season. But sitting here two years on we have no regrets. We’ve certainly learned a lot – and while there is always room for improvement, we find ourselves reasonably satisfied with where we’re at currently,” says Tim.

The Cookes manage a mix of upland and hill ground, spread over five farms, on which they run more than 900 Easycare ewes that lamb outside in March, plus 250 home-bred replacement ewe lambs and 120 red deer hinds with their calves.

The six-week annual mating season last autumn went without a hitch, with several new tups introduced seamlessly and successfully.

“We staggered tupping, with the rams going out with the gimmers a week after being let in with the older ewes. We’ve continued to invest in Exlanas, with some new rams coming from our usual breeder plus two purchased at a sale in Carlisle. This has allowed us to introduce some top 10% genetics, with a focus on genetic traits such as worm resistance, foot conformation and the ability to produce hardy lambs able to withstand any inclement weather when we lamb.

"Half the flock of 930 ewes put to the tup went to Exlanas for flock replacements and half to terminal sires (Texel/Suffolks) for finished lamb production,” says Tim.

The Cookes celebrated the New Year with the last of their 2023 lamb crop leaving the farm.

“We were pleased that we only needed to sell nine lambs as stores in January – everything else born on the farm we sold finished. Historically, the estate has sold half its lamb output as stores, so our decision to finish more of our own lambs off stubble turnips and the new herbal ley has been more than vindicated. This is great because when you’ve done all the hard work, it’s always disappointing to sell lambs on to someone else to finish,” says Tim.

Louise, who is also a vet, is especially pleased that their lamb rearing percentage has increased to 154% – slightly below their 165% target, but up on last year’s 144%.

“Our 2023 lambing was particularly tough because the weather was so bad. But considering our upland location, 154% is a respectable result we feel. Obviously, we’d like to do better this coming year, but must be realistic I suppose when we lamb outdoors,” she says.

Further progress is possible though with the Nether Laggan flock scanning at 194% in the third week of January, with only 1.4% of ewes barren.

Tim and Louise spent the rest of January and early February making sure ewes received a flukicide treatment and a mineral bolus before splitting the flock into the usual triplet, twin and single-bearing groups for appropriate pre-lambing feeding.

“Four to six weeks prior to lambing, which starts on March 23, the ewes will receive their Heptavac® P Plus booster to help protect their newborn lambs from clostridial diseases and pasteurellosis through drinking the ewes’ colostrum. We will only worm any thin ewes and don’t blanket treat the flock because of the concerns about resistance issues,” says Louise.

All ewe replacements have now received their Footvax® primary vaccination course, with the Cookes crediting vaccination against footrot as being the most game-changing flock health intervention they have made.

“We’ve made brilliant progress with lameness and don’t want to let it slip. Vaccination has made a such massive difference. Tim is also ruthless with his culling policy, and we always quarantine new sheep coming in. We also feed ewes with a snacker in different areas, which reduces the risk of spreading infection around stationary supplementary feeding points,” says Louise.

The Cookes also herald the flock health advice and support they have received from their vet Gareth Boyes at the Ark Veterinary Group.

“We’d encourage all sheep farmers to foster a much closer working relationship with their vet. Gareth and his team have been so helpful and run a proactive flock health club,” says Louise.

With ambitions to increase ewe numbers up to 1000 this year, the knowledge gained from such productive collaborations will certainly hold the Cookes in good stead as they continue their Scottish farming adventure.