Thought your kids were a handful? Spare a thought for this shepherdess
Thought your kids were a handful? Spare a thought for the isolated shepherdess juggling hundreds of needy newborn lambs – as she reveals in this enchanting spring diary
The last light of the day is dipping over the hill as shepherdess Emma Gray mounts her quad bike to head home.
With her young son, Len, strapped to her back, she makes one last round of her fields before calling it a night.
It’s been a long day for the 34-year-old, who has spent the past three weeks welcoming 700 lambs into the world.
Gray, who grew up on her parents’ farm in Scotland, went on to become the first female winner of the prestigious Northumberland Sheepdog Trials League and wrote a book about her isolated life. Then, in 2018, despite living 20 miles from the nearest town, she finally found love with Scottish firefighter Ewan Irvine, 41
For while the rest of the UK has been in coronavirus lockdown, life — and death — have continued on Gray’s remote 150-acre farm, near Morpeth, Northumberland.
She is a woman used to challenges. At 23, a split from her fiance prompted her to take up sole tenancy of the National Trust farm she calls home, making her Britain’s youngest — and loneliest — shepherdess.
Gray, who grew up on her parents’ farm in Scotland, went on to become the first female winner of the prestigious Northumberland Sheepdog Trials League and wrote a book about her isolated life.
Then, in 2018, despite living 20 miles from the nearest town, she finally found love with Scottish firefighter Ewan Irvine, 41.
He now works at the farm alongside her, and last spring they welcomed a son, Len.
Here, her diary entries reveal the highs and lows of the lambing season.
March 23: Now we wait
As Britain prepares to go into lockdown, lambing season is about to begin, and it feels like the calm before the storm.
The sheep ultrasound-scan man (yes, that is a profession) has already scanned all the sheep to tell us which ewes are in lamb and with how many.
We colour-coded each expectant mum: blue for triplets, red for singles and no mark for twins. Now all we can do is wait.
One of the lambs was rejected by her mother. It was cold so I brought her in — it’s not something I do a lot, but I didn’t see any other option
March 26: The first births
So it begins. Up at 5am, fed Len and headed out on my rounds. I found the first two lambs with their mother as the sun came up. All were healthy and happy.
It’s been an odd start to the lambing. Normally we have lots of problems with pregnant ewes, but the sheep have been very quiet. I can’t help feeling unsettled by how well behaved they are. One day down, three weeks to go.
March 27: A tragic start
A ewe was slow to lamb, and on closer inspection I discover both lambs have died inside her. This makes them harder for both me and the ewe to deliver.
The ewe was a bit sickly afterwards. I gave her a Lucozade to perk her up. Worked wonders!
She was revived by the afternoon. I could give her orphan lambs but it’s better she has the summer to recover.
March 28: The virus threat looms
Just heard of a Covid-19 case not far from the farm. Until now it’s been something we’ve seen on the news. It’s scary to know it has struck close to home.
The family affected send their child to the same childminder as our little boy. We just hope that neither of us gets sick during lambing.
There are only the two of us, and if we are struck down with it, there’s no one to help.
March 29: A house guest
One of the lambs was rejected by her mother. It was cold so I brought her in — it’s not something I do a lot, but I didn’t see any other option.
On the upside, Len is having great fun playing with her, but it’s like having a second child — so many bottles. She’ll stay with us for about a week until I can find a ewe to give her to.
Just before lockdown one of the dogs had a litter of puppies, so today we had a puppy photoshoot with Len
March 31: A great escape
Looked out of the window this morning and the sheep weren’t there and the gate was flapping in the wind.
Walkers must have been through and left it open. There is a lot of land and it’s full of trees, so the sheep will be difficult to find. Ewan took Len out on the quad bike to find them, while I had to contend with the lambing ewes.
It took him a while but he managed. Really annoying. If the sheep had been out much longer we would never have got them back. There are 4,000 acres of trees and no fences.
Ewan did great, but he had other jobs he could have been doing, rather than chasing our sheep through the trees.
April 1: Puppy love and puppy snaps
Just before lockdown one of the dogs had a litter of puppies, so today we had a puppy photoshoot with Len.
I find puppies really frustrating to photograph when young; they are always wriggling about and looking the wrong way.
So we added a wayward one-year-old into the mix to liven things up. Len thinks they’re little teddies.
In other news, we have a lamb with a black mark above its mouth that looks like a moustache.
April 2: Everything goes wrong
Disaster day. Len woke up at 4am and there seemed no sense in going back to sleep, so I headed off to an even earlier start.
It was just as well because today was rough. One of our heifers managed to put her head through a gate, lift it clean out of the fence and throw herself down a deep embankment.
By the time I got to her, she was pretty out of it with no fight left. I had to ring for Ewan to come and help get her out.
We cut her out and sat her up. Thankfully she’s alive, but that’s about all I can say about her.
Ewan managed to hit a deer on the way to rescue the heifer, and then I snapped the fan belt in our little off-road Suzuki Jimny van. Then I had to lamb another pair of dead lambs out of a ewe.
Relieved when the day ended and a glass of wine was waiting.
April 3: A bad dose of mummy guilt
I’ve hit a lambing wall. I’m really tired at the minute. It can be difficult finding a chance for any time to yourself with all the lambs and puppies, as well as a toddler running around.
I leave the sheep at 8pm every night and arrive at 5am the next morning and it’s amazing how much damage they can do in that time. It can be quite a scene.
We’ve also had a worrying few days waiting to see if Len has contracted coronavirus after the family in the village who go to the same childminder developed symptoms.
Juggling farm work and looking after Len is tough, although we love to get him involved. But to make things worse he fell over and nearly knocked out his tooth yesterday.
I’m feeling terrible mother guilt. I asked Ewan to step in so I could spend some time with Len and gather my thoughts.
I’ve invited my sister, Caroline, down to help with childminding duties because Ewan and I can’t be in two places at once. And it’s not like we can just work from the house.
She’s been in isolation as her dog-grooming business in Hawick has closed, so it’s safer than using a professional childminder who’s in contact with lots of children. I don’t see what other option we have.
Life and death always go together on the farm, with 95 per cent of all sheep mortality happening at lambing time. It’s just something you have to deal with [File photo]
April 4: The magic of Lucozade
Back at it today and having some problems with an older ewe. She’s decided she doesn’t want to be a mother and is butting her lamb away. It happens sometimes.
I’ve put her in a head collar, which is basically just a bit of string which attaches her to a fence. It means she can’t dip her head and knock the lamb away.
On a positive note, the ewe I revived with Lucozade has now made a full recovery, which I’m delighted with. It makes me proud of myself and her instinct to survive. Sheep are the toughest creatures you will meet.
April 5: Some corona blues
About halfway through now. We have 400 ewes and each will have roughly two lambs, so that’s a lot of work for me, Ewan and the dogs.
Life and death always go together on the farm, with 95 per cent of all sheep mortality happening at lambing time. It’s just something you have to deal with.
I was looking at some photos taken just before the lambing season of Ewan, Len and me outside the house. It wasn’t that long ago, but coronavirus was hardly even on the radar then. Now not an hour goes by that we don’t think about it.
A ewe on our neighbour’s farm needed a C-section and he had to tie her to a gate lying down so the vet could do the section while observing social distancing.
We’re lucky that we live in an isolated lambing bubble and wouldn’t be seeing many people anyway.
My parents are only 20 miles away, in lockdown in Hawick, but can’t visit. We keep in touch with them online, but I know they miss Len.
It’s a shame because he’s changing so much at the moment and I don’t want them to miss out on that.
The heifer who got stuck in the fence is looking much better today. I’m more hopeful she will make a good recovery, but the other cows are bullying her.
I’m not sure if that’s because she smells different, or because she is weaker. It could also be because she’s in season, which might explain her putting her head through the gate in the first place looking for Mr Right.
April 8: Brought in from the cold
There was a bit of a frost this morning and a couple of lambs that were born during the night became hypothermic.
They didn’t get up to feed on their mother’s milk, so we had to bring them in and put them in a warming box and give them glucose.
It was surprising how quickly they rallied.
The heifer who got stuck in the fence is looking much better today. I’m more hopeful she will make a good recovery, but the other cows are bullying her [File photo]
April 9: The lamb pincher
So we have a hormone-crazy wannabe mother called ‘a pincher’. This happens occasionally when a ewe’s maternal instincts overwhelm her and she wants to mother any lamb in sight.
She’ll steal the lambs of other mothers, especially younger ewes. It can be frustrating for us because sometimes a pincher will be working at night, and we’ll come down in the morning and she’ll be standing with five lambs, none of them her own.
We’ve put this one in a different field so she can concentrate on lambing her own.
Thankfully, we are nearly there now. Only about 50 ewes left to give birth out of 400. I might even put some make-up on later for the first time in weeks to mark the occasion.
April 10: A perfect way to end…
Len turned one today. A perfect way to end the lambing season. It’s been hectic but we’ve come out the other side.
Lambing is pretty much like spinning plates. You just need to keep going all the time and you can’t ever stop.
At the end of lambing, I feel euphoric. It’s such a relief to be finished and get a good result.
It also feels a little like getting out of jail. I’m no longer living, breathing, working, thinking about sheep all day, every day, and we can get back to a bit of normality.
And in these grim times, there is no better sight than a field full of contented ewes and frolicking lambs.
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