Over recent years, an impressive number of rare breeds have made their way onto Slow Food UK’s Ark of Taste, indicating that they play an important part in food heritage and sustainability and that their products are the best of their kind. In 2020, Borerays resident on Orkney took this to another level, receiving a Slow Food Presidium Award.

One of the essentials for a Presidium Award is collaborative community involvement and behind Orkney Boreray is a breeding and expansion programme that is encouraging new flocks on farms and crofts across Orkney. And behind Orkney Boreray is breeder Jane Cooper who had found herself a few years previously becoming the guardian of what came to be known as the ‘Lost Flock’.

As an enthusiastic spinner, Jane’s original intention had been to start a small fleece flock with a group of five wethers, one of which turned out to be a ram deemed ‘too good to castrate’.

The acquisition of that ram led to the foundation of the Settisgarth flock and the start of a breeding operation leading to a thriving mutton business. Jane went on to add to her flock, acquiring sheep that, although not registered, came with many years of meticulous records. Jane says: “Essentially, we had an isolated flock of Borerays representing a completely separate line to mainland sheep. Breeder and Boreray expert Christine Williams had spent many years researching these sheep and with the help of Christine, Janice Wood of the Soay & Boreray Sheep Society and RBST Field Officer Ruth Dalton, we were able to have them included in the supplementary register of the Combined Flock Book. When she left the island after the inspection, Christine told me that I was now the custodian of the genes.”

Being that custodian was a responsibility that Jane took very seriously, realising that her breeding efforts alone would not be sufficient. She says: “Our own land can only support a certain number of sheep, so we needed more flocks, with younger people involved to develop a market that would make breeding and breed conservation sustainable. The plan was that the small number of my sheep that were registered, or were from a registered tup, would go to starter flocks in Orkney to expand our premium mutton business.”

Within weeks of Jane’s flock being included in the Supplementary Register a new flock was started on Shapinsay and everything was looking very promising – until a few months later the Orkney abattoir at Kirkwall was abruptly closed. The only alternative facility was at Dingwall on the east coast of Scotland and this meant that sheep going for slaughter from Orkney would face a long ferry crossing followed by a 100-mile road journey. Jane says: “Of course, this represented considerably higher transport costs but my greatest concern was the welfare of the animals facing the stress of such a long journey. I kept breeding in hope, but there didn’t seem to be any alternative on the horizon.”

Hoping that a better solution could be found, Jane campaigned vigorously for abattoir facilities to be re-established on Orkney and, through this work, met cook and food writer Wendy Barrie, who is also lead for Slow Food Scotland’s Ark of Taste. Wendy brought Jane together with Jock Gibson who manages the family businesses, Macbeth’s Butchers in Forres and Edinvale Farm in the hills above the Moray Firth. Wendy introduced Jock to Boreray mutton and he was able to reassure Jane about using the Dingwall abattoir.

Jane says: “Jock told me that he does his own hanging, but that everything else about Dingwall was fantastic. I also did a lot of my own research which confirmed what Jock had said and we decided to take our first lot of twelve sheep to Dingwall in August 2020. From a welfare point of view, I felt it was important that we accompany the sheep on the journey and I was able to lead them calmly from the trailer into their pen in lairage. Then I waited for Jock to see the meat, because he would know immediately whether the animals had been stressed and everything turned out fine.”

While a solution to the abattoir problem has been found, in an ideal world Jane would still rather see animals transported on the hook rather than on the hoof. She says: “My idea of perfection would be a mobile abattoir. Some individual animals simply won’t tolerate travel and so we have to home slaughter, which means that the meat can only be consumed by family members living on the holding.”

With a route to market established, Jane is continuing to help establish new starter flocks but she is very aware that with meat sales alone it is difficult to make breeding commercially viable. She says: “Breeding Borerays will always be a part-time activity, but breeders have got to be able to make a dignified living from their sheep, with a decent level of profit. We need to be able to add value to cover the cost of transport to slaughter and be able to encourage new flocks to be established.”

To this end, Jane works not only to establish new flocks with more – and younger – crofters and farmers, but also to develop products and markets that make them a profitable enterprise for everyone involved.

This effort has now evolved into the Orkney Boreray Community, which includes crofters, farmers, craftspeople, producers, butchers, chefs and businesses. Members of that community include people like India Whitwell who set up Orkney Cloth, using locally sourced materials like Orkney Boreray fleece, and Nathan McTaggart, a Stronsay craftsman who makes products from the horn – and there is even someone looking to make replicas of ancient musical instruments using Boreray leg bones.

Jane says: “We place a very strong emphasis on this being a community activity, which includes a strong support network with a private Facebook group. It is important to find the right people to start new flocks and to date we have five in total, two of which are with people new to the islands who have never kept sheep before.”

Speaking about the Slow Food Presidium award, Wendy Barrie said: “Jane has been fundamental in founding a community group with common goals, whose activities encompass advocacy and education as well as food production. For the Orkney Boreray Community, the Slow Food Presidium will give a strong message of provenance, integrity, food heritage and quality supporting dedicated island producers and their very special heritage sheep.”

Breeder Profile: A new focus

Breeder profile: The Lost Flock

Butchers Profile