The 2023 Marsh Award heroes

The Marsh Awards are the creation of Mr Brian Marsh OBE, Chairman of the Marsh Charitable Trust, who wanted to support areas such as conservation and volunteering. The Awards programme identifies and works with partner organisations which are experts in their chosen fields. RBST has three awards: Conservation in Genetic Biodiversity, which recognises those who have made technical and scientific contributions to the conservation of rare breeds, Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognises outstanding long-term commitment to RBST and breed societies and Support Group Volunteer of the Year which is awarded to the individual who has been nominated by their RBST Support Group for all their hard work and dedication throughout the previous 12 months.

The 2023 RBST Marsh Awards went to Jane Cooper for Conservation in Genetic Bio-Diversity, the Lifetime Achievement Award to Alan Black and Support Group Volunteer 2023 was Aaron Kirkpatrick of RBST Northern Ireland.

Alan Black

RBST Vice President Alan Black receives his Marsh Award for Lifetime Achievement to mark his many years of service to RBST in the roles of Trustee, Chairman and, since 1999, Vice President.  In more recent years, Alan has also acted as Chair of the Nominations Committee, advising the Board on matters of governance and acting as guide and mentor to both trustees and staff.  

Alan’s family background is a mix of farming and veterinary practice and his career path took him down the veterinary route. He moved from Ireland to Dudley in the West Midlands in 1970 where he joined a small animal practice which he later took on and developed into Blacks Veterinary Group, a Black Country group incorporating surgeries and a small animal hospital.

His first involvement with rare breeds came through Geoffrey Cloke who was very active in both the pig world and RBST. Alan explains:  “We had a house with an acre of garden and I had asked Geoffrey for his advice on where to buy some Tamworths. We bought two in-pig Tamworths from Geoff Wilson’s Rufforth herd in Yorkshire and moved them into in the coach house. Within a very short time, Geoffrey got me involved in RBST and I was Chairman for three years in the mid ‘90s.”

Although only having limited direct involvement with livestock keeping, Alan found empathy with the work of the Trust.  He says:  “I firmly believe in what RBST stands for and the principles that guide it.  I had had a brief experience in a farm practice in Ireland but I didn’t feel that I could work in a commercial farming environment where the whole emphasis was on the monetary value of the animals.  I felt that intensive farming was having a detrimental effect on indigenous livestock, which was in decline, and that by becoming involved in RBST, I could do my bit to help stop that decline.  I continue to feel that way, which is why I have remained involved.”

Jane Cooper

Jane Cooper established her breeding flock of Borerays with sheep gathered from three tiny flocks in the Highlands.  In 2017, she discovered that this meant she was custodian of the last remnants of the ‘Lost Flock’ of Boreray sheep which represented a genetically unique sub-group of the breed.

These were sheep descended from the flock left behind on St Kilda when the island was evacuated in August 1930.  Through research and analysis, Jane ascertained that these sheep were from a completely separate line to other mainland sheep and in 2017, having worked with Boreray expert Christine Williams, Janice Wood of the Soay & Boreray Sheep Society and RBST, she was able to have her sheep included in the supplementary register of the Combined Flock Book.

Having gained recognition for her flock, Jane set about securing a long-term and sustainable future for the Orkney Borerays.  She realised that her efforts alone would be not be sufficient, so she set about bringing together a community of like-minded Orkney farmers and crofters – with a particular emphasis on attracting younger members – who share an agroecological and sustainable ethos.  The community now has Boreray flocks on four islands, increasing biosecurity, and a programme has been established designed to protect, preserve and promote the flocks, focusing on health and diversity in both genotype and phenotype within its small genetic pool. 

This effort evolved into the Orkney Boreray Community, which includes crofters, farmers, craftspeople, producers, butchers, chefs and businesses, and along the way Jane also found herself campaigning for a solution when the Orkney abattoir was abruptly closed.  In 2021, the Community received a Slow Food Praesidium Award in recognition of its collaborative community involvement.

On learning of her Marsh Award, Jane said:  I was thrilled and excited to receive the news and I feel very honoured. I must thank Christine Williams who so generously shared her research with me. I also want to thank RBST for bringing the Lost Flock Boreray sheep 'into the fold' through registration and for their unfailing support of the work we are doing here in Orkney.”

Aaron Kirkpatrick

Aaron Kirkpatrick, from Ballygowan, County Down, was nominated for his work which has been instrumental in re-establishing the Northern Ireland Support Group.  In looking to restore an active RBST presence in Northern Ireland, Support Group Secretary Aaron has engaged with old and new members and has worked to establish new networks and partnership. 

By taking a fresh and professional approach, he has worked with the Support Group to establish links with Government, the National Trust, Nature Friendly Farming Network and more whilst engaging with RBST in delivering quality conservation projects to ensure native breeds are successful in Northern Ireland.

Although he grew up in the countryside, Aaron had no experience of farming or livestock before the purchase of a new home necessitated the acquisition of some sheep to keep the grass down.  Starting with Castlemilk Moorits and later adding Herdwicks, Aaron progressed to small-scale meat production and livestock sales with a flock averaging 30 to 40 animals.  A product design engineer by profession, Aaron says:  “The day job helps fund the evening work.”

He first joined RBST around seven years ago, becoming actively involved in the Support Group but found that over recent years, the Group’s activities were starting to decline.  He says:  “I thought back to when I was a kid and remembered liking the work RBST was doing.  I thought that perhaps if we combined the two existing support group and just having one to represent the whole of Northern Ireland, we could grow the resources to have more presence at shows and get RBST in Northern Ireland back to what it was like in its heyday.  It’s been a big challenge but the membership is starting to grow again and we have returned to venues like Balmoral, where RBST once had a major presence.”

Of his award, Aaron says:  “It came as a total surprise when I received the letter telling me I had won the award and I was very pleased but I would like to say that this is not just my award.  A lot of people have been involved in getting RBST Northern Ireland off the ground and they are all people who do a lot of good work.”


   Alan Black                                   Jane Cooper                            Aaron Kirkpatrick