Wildlife trust asks do ewe have what it takes?

Conservation shepherd  Laura Cunningham and volunteer Ian Hunter check on the flock
Conservation shepherd Laura Cunningham and volunteer Ian Hunter check on the flock

On A narrow and windswept stretch of coast, a group has been quietly preparing one of Fife’s wildlife reserves for the summer months.

These hardy gardeners are known as the flying flock, a unique collection of sheep and cows which are keeping reserves across Scotland well trimmed.

In Crail, 44 of the flock are currently grazing at Kilminning Reserve, a narrow coastal strip known for its birds and wild flowers and, while they look after the land, a group of volunteer shepherds are helping to look after them.

Laura Cunningham has been a shepherd for 12 years, and spent nine of them working as a conservation shepherd for the Scottish Widlife Trust, keeping a watchful eye on Scotland’s only flying flock.

She admits being a shepherd in 2012 is a world apart from most people’s Christmas-card inspired views of the job.

She said: “Most people don’t think shepherds are real any more but they’re still out there, especially in Scotland.

“It’s changed a lot. Fifty to 60 years ago, a shepherd would be looking after a flock of around 200; now they’re more likely to be looking after 2000.”

With 80 ewes who each have, on average two lambs, plus four tups (males) and five cows, Laura’s flock may be on the small side. But it is scattered throughout reserves in Fife, Angus and the Lothians, so keeping track of it is a full-time job.

For Laura, the busiest time of the year hits when the flock lambs in April, when days start at 5am and end at 10pm.

Outside of the lambing season, Laura is kept busy keeping track of the far-flung flock, shearing the sheep, keeping them healthy, and weaning the lambs.

She’s joined by two four-legged helpers, sheepdogs Fion – who, like Laura has been shepherding for 12 years – and Mist, who’s done it for nine.

Recently, Laura has also been joined by human helpers who have volunteered to be shepherds in training.

Among them is recent recruit and Scottish Wildlife Trust member, Ian Hunter (pictured above with Laura).

Already familiar with the various birds that visit the reserve, Ian says becoming a shepherd is a perfect excuse to get outside and get some exercise.

He explained the role of a volunteer shepherd, saying: “My main job is to visit the reserve and count the sheep to check none has gone missing and see they are fit and healthy.

“Sometimes you’ll get here and think some are lost, but they can usually be found hiding in the old bomb shelter.”

The flying flock sheep come from the hardy Shetland primitive breed, meaning they are not only able to survive the rugged reserve and the weather which goes with it, but thrive there. But they do face threats from dogs who may attack sheep while they are off the lead, a problem which lost the flying flock five sheep last April.

While Kilminning’s sheep are due to be sold later in spring, a new group of four-legged helpers will return next autumn. Meanwhile, the SWT is always looking for volunteers to provide extra eyes for its unique flock.

For Laura, even in the face of long hours and occasionally wild weather, shepherding remains an ideal job.

She said: “I like working with sheep and dogs and being outdoors, and it’s been so rewarding to see the flying flock go from strength to strength.”

If you’d like to volunteer, contact Alistair Whyte on 01236 617 115 or email awhyte@swt.org.uk