Blog: Hannah Jackson
1st March 2016
Hannah Jackson (23) is an NSA Next Generation Ambassador 2016 from Armathwaite, Cumbria. Alongside her work as a self-employed contract shepherd on a number of farms, Hannah runs a flock of pedigree Hampshire Downs and 60 North of England Mules near Carlisle. Having established herself from scratch with no farming background, she is working hard to establish a reputation for both her professional shepherding services and the sheep she breeds. She has a clear appetite for knowledge and passion for promotion and describes her targets at twofold – to be an innovator within the sector and a role model for other new entrants.
Hannah visits schools to educate people about farming and food production, she is an avid Twitter user and takes every opportunity to shout up for sheep farming. When asked how she might balance an education role with future flock expansion, Hannah told the selection panel: “I definitely want more sheep, but I never want to forget the journey I’ve had and how I’ve got here. It’s important to share
that with other people.” Land is the biggest constraint for Hannah’s current flock, but she has implemented rotational grazing to make the most from the grass on her parent’s smallholding, and is investigating options for exchanging her shepherding services for access to land.
Top fact: Hannah helps with her parents’ business offering team building away days for corporate companies. She demonstrates her sheepdog handling skills, exchanging sheep for people, to highlight good communication skills.
Scroll down for entries from Hannah about her farming year so far in 2016. You can also keep up-to-date by following Hannah on Twitter @redshepherdess.
As a contract shepherdess, lambing time is my busiest time of year. Whilst most people’s lambing period are between four to six weeks, mine is more than three months. With many farmers drawing in outside help to cope with the increase in labour needed, it’s vital I take the opportunity to do as much as I can. I aim to work on at least three farms, and this year I have chosen to make them as different as possible so I get the opportunity to see different set ups and systems, and can farm on different types of sheep farms, running various breeds.
This month, I’ve worked on a local lowland farm in the beautiful Eden Valley, Cumbria lambing 3,000 texel cross and North of England Mule ewes, along with 800 Easy Care ewes later on. Lambing here took place indoors due to the unpredictable weather, and was the biggest flock I’ve worked with during lambing so far. The system was extremely efficient in terms of housing and labour, which I think is so important when handling such large numbers and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I’ve now moved down to Dinas Island in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The team I am part of will be lambing 3,000 ewes and ewe lambs indoors. I’ve always wanted to work at this farm, as they are extremely focused on EID recording and monitoring, while constantly improving their flock in terms of genetics, productivity, profitability and efficiency as a result. The sheep are also rotationally grazed, something I have become increasingly interested in and am trying to implement on my smallholding. I will be on my way back to Cumbria to lamb on a local hill farm for the whole of April. This will bring more variation to lambing, as it will involve both indoor and outdoor systems, as well as a mixture of breeds. Altogether there is around 1,500 ewes to lamb, the in-bye ewes will start lambing indoors, closely followed by the hill ewes outside. Thankfully this farm is situated only two miles from our smallholding; crucial as my commercial ewes will also be lambing from 8th April. It will be a juggling game!
So as you can tell at lambing time I’m flat out, my social life is cut down to a bare minimum and I become a slight recluse but it is hands down my favourite time of year. You can’t beat the feeling of welcoming new life into the world and watching lambs grow and flourish. Lambing is hard and strenuous work, especially over long periods, however I wouldn’t change a thing about it, every early morning is completely worth it.
March has been a whirlwind and I can’t quite believe that I’ve been away from home for five weeks now! Lambing in Wales has been a fantastic experience and at times very challenging, peak days have seen up to 130 sheep lambing in 24 hours. I’ve been the main lamber in the shed during the day, concentrating specifically on adoptions. We have lambed 2,400 ewes and 400 ewe lambs and managed to adopt 300+ lambs onto new mothers, leaving no pet lambs whatsoever. Every lamb has been sent out from the shed tagged, holding crucial information including lambing ease, vigour, birth weight and any other additional comments. Each lamb will then be individually tracked throughout its time on the farm and eventually a decision will be made as to whether it will remain on the farm for breeding or be sold for meat.
The farm is somewhat open to the elements due to being on the coast, and is surrounded by water on three sides which leaves the young lambs very vulnerable to the varying winds. A lot of pre-planning and weather watching has taken place as a result, to determine when has been best to turn lambs out. Thankfully the weather has started to improve now, the fertiliser has been spread and the grass is beginning to green and grow. With only 200 sheep left the lamb, more attention is turning to the grass management and rotational grazing systems set up here. With only a few days left here, I will soon be heading back to Cumbria to start another month of lambing on a hill farm local to me. I’ve had an incredible time here in Wales and learnt more than I could have ever imagined. I’ve met some great people and made brilliant friends and I’ve already got two more visits planned for May and July this year, as well as plans to come back next year for round two in the lambing shed.
A lot of people ask me if I’m fed up of lambing now after two months without a day off, and I can honestly hold my hands up and say there’s not been one day that I haven’t wanted to work or lamb. For me this is my favourite time of year and what I look forward to all year, and when it’s all finished I’ll be counting down the months till lambing 2017.
So I’m over half way through my last lambing job of 2016 and I can’t believe how fast it’s gone. Only two weeks to go and everything should be outside, springing about in the sunshine. It’s been great to be home in Cumbria, however I wish the weather had behaved itself a little more. Strong winds, rain and occasional snow have led to some problems with the outside lambers and we’ve had to bring more than expected inside. Thankfully, we kept on top of everything, and finally the sun has begun to make an appearance as we head into the last 300 lambers. Its been a fantastic place to work, especially as I already knew the farm I am working for. I settled in fast and got myself adjusted to the different system, compared to Wales. Here I’m taking the main control over the lambing shed and it’s fantastic. I make most of the decisions regarding adoptions, medicating, leading lambs and ewe out (and many more), and I love the reasonability.
As well as lambing here, I’ve also been juggling lambing my own flock at the same time. Thankfully my family were all on board and mainly took control of the flock at home. This year I also gave young entrant Ethan Kinney the opportunity to experience some large scale farming for two weeks during his school holidays. He stayed with us here in Cumbria helping with our flock at home and also to shadow me and help at work. He took to like a fish in water, and I couldn’t have been any more impressed with his commitment and hard work over. Ethan attends a secondary school on the Wirral near where I grew up, and like myself does not come from ‘farming stock’. They have a small farm on the school and it was originally when visiting and working with the school farm that I truly saw Ethans passion for farming and instantaneously saw myself in him. I truly believe it is our responsibility to encourage younger people into farming, and show them agricultural is a career worth investing in. It was an absolute pleasure to have Ethan with us for two weeks, he is returning in the summer to gain more experience to add to his CV to help him in the future. You can never knock passion and enthusiasm like what he has, like I said, he reminds me of myself look where my passion and enthusiasm has got me now.
So finally after a long but extremely rewarding three months, lambing 2016 has drawn to a close. My last day lambing was full of mixed emotions, having worked so hard with no day off I was really looking forward to a couple of quieter days, whilst on the other hand I was still craving more and more lambing. My body clock repeatedly woke me up at 5.30am for at least a week, but as they say ‘early bird catches the worm’, and I more than fulfilled my days with many other farming jobs and activities. Finishing lambing has finally given me chance to focus on my own flock and watch their progress as they thrive now the warm weather has eventually arrived. The lambs are growing well and bouncing round the field and there really is no better feeling!
May always feels like a quiet month to me despite working and contracting almost every day, it just doesn’t throw the same demands at me that lambing does. I spend most of May being contracted to tail/castrate/mark new born lambs across a number of farms as a lot of local farms using outdoor lambing systems bring everything into pens over a number of days at the end of lambing. I always find it has its advantages as it means you are handling every single lamb on the holding meaning problems become apparent and can be assessed and dealt with accordingly. It also allows you to follow early weight gains and such.
Towards the end of May shearing will begin. I rousey on a shearing round of 25,000 sheep, starting the end of May-beginning of August. Once again the days become long and at times quite physical, however I can’t complain to much as I watch beads of sweat full down the shearers face. On an average day we shear around 750-800 sheep and it’s my role to ensure wool is sorted accordingly and rolled correctly. Of course when it’s a little quieter I will jump on the board and have a quick go at shearing myself, although I’m pretty slow and I have to concentrate a lot, it’s always quite a tidy job in the end. Shearing time is a very social time of year here up in Cumbria. We work hard all day, but will always share a meal together or a cold beer after a long run of sheep whilst putting the world to rights.
So, May brings ‘a change in the wind’ so to speak, but a nice one at that. My work begins to become more social again moving from farm to farm everyday. This year I’m determined to shear at least 40 plus sheep, improving my technique and gaining a little more speed.
We’ve been heading full steam into shearing season the last few weeks. My days on the shearing rounds start around 6.30am, getting all our gear ready and we aim to set up at the first farm for a 7am start with shearing. In one day, we’ll generally travel between two or three different farms, shearing on average around 900 sheep per day. I’m wrapping wool for three shearers, whilst keeping the board clean and filling wool bags. I often get asked ‘do you not get fed up doing the same job every day for so long?’ Honestly, not really, I may be filling the same role but we’re always moving between different breeds of sheep, different systems and of course different farms and therefore different people. Each one of these brings something new to the table and mixes the season up greatly.
Late June brings one of my favourite days of the sheep farming calendar, the fell gather day. I join a fell gather in the Eden Valley where there are three farmers grazing on common land with approximately 1,500 sheep. I am employed by one of these farmers to assist with the big gather. We begin at the bottom of the fell at 7am and it’s our job to cross the beck and start pushing any ewes up towards the peak of the fell. To cover the fell we must split up and cover large areas of ground ourselves with our own dogs. We often don’t see one another till we are two thirds up the fell. Once we are edging closer towards the top, we also have other farmers come from the sides and push them inwards towards the middle of the fell. Sheep group from different directions looking like what I can only imagine as some sort of spaghetti junction if you were to take an ariel view. Once we have them group a lot closer we push the sheep over the peak of the fell, just beyond this point there is a large catching pen that fits all 1,500 sheep in and a long race with seven shedding gates. Each farmer then stands at their shedding gate and it’s my job to keep the sheep coming on the race and as a sheep approaches the farmer it belongs to, the gate is opened and they enter a separate pen. Finally, once all the sheep have been shedded correctly, each farm walks their flock down the fell back to their farm and shearing time begins for these fell sheep.
This month has been reasonably hectic. I’ve been juggling wool wrapping, ‘farm sitting’ and contract work. It takes some organisation at times, with a diary that I literally have to write everything in so I stay on top of things. But I’m definitely not complaining. I’d rather be really busy than twiddling my thumbs.
I’ve welcomed a new member to the team called Butch. She is a 10 month old, blue merle, border collie. Butch is from breeding that I’ve been desperate to have for three years since I worked with farmer Anni Ritakallio in Keswick. She breeds and train sheepdogs under the prefix Valmis and her bitch Jazz is a phenomenal work dog on the hill and lowland and is also a very successful trial dog often running in the English national and gained reserve place for the English team at the International Sheepdog Trials. Butch is the daughter to Jazz and so far she has shown fantastic signs of becoming a great sheepdog. She’s calm around the sheep with natural instinct. I’m very excited to watch her learn and develop into an amazing sheepdog and an invaluable member of my team.
I’ve also had an amazing opportunity to be part of a Countryfile Live. I as a member of Team Sheep in the livestock section. It was an amazing three days and inspiring to see so many of the general public take such an interest in agriculture and the sheep industry. It was great to have the opportunity to speak with people from all walks of life and all different ages and watch their face light up as they felt what a sheep’s fleece felt like, ask inquisitive questions and really start to take a hold of what life as a shepherd is really like. I believe it’s our responsibility to educate and connect with our consumers and help build a bridge between our two very different and separated worlds. When people can empathise and sympathise with us, they can really start to relate and play a very important role to the industry and that is, to simply support British agriculture.
Now we are coming to the end of July, I’m slowly winding down slightly. I’ll be setting off to Alaska next month for a change of scenery and a bit of an adventure.
After an amazing break away in Alaska and Chicago, it’s back into the swing of things and getting back to life as a contract shepherdess. The best thing about September is that there are many different jobs going on. I’m ‘farm sitting’, fell gathering, dosing, weaning, dipping, shepherding in general and dressing sheep ready for sales. I’ve also managed to gain further work on another two fantastic farms, one of these being a beautiful hill farm in the Lake District, and the other being a small estate in Lockerbie.
We’ve been very busy with weekly Natural Leaders courses at our smallholding recently. These courses focus on leadership development and team management in teaching people to work a sheepdog. We concentrate specifically on body language, tone of voice and communication and how you must adapt all of these factors to relate to different individuals within your team as well as different scenarios. The aim of this is getting the best out of your team and therefore your work and business.
I’ve also been on two more fell gathers this month, both beautiful in their own way but also very different. Last week I spent a day gathering in the Eden Valley and this week I’m heading to the Lake District to join a two-day gather. Both these gathers are on a common fell and therefore grazed by multiple farmers and it takes a big group of farmer and their dogs to gather the entire area.
With all this work going on Butch, the new addition to the team, is starting to come on some jobs with my main dog Fraser. It’s important that she becomes use to being at different farms and around different people, dogs and livestock. She’s taking to change really well and is starting to become involved in little bits of work too. I always like to have my dogs under good control and with the basics firmly in place before I let them work among other people’s livestock and Butch is proving to come along nicely and showing really promising signs of becoming a good sheepdog.
Summer and shearing now seems a distant memory in 2016 and sheep sales are coming to an end and the nights are drawing in. I’ve been busy assisting different farms with getting their tups ready and out with the ewes. This process marks the beginning of the sheep year, so a successful start is crucial to develop a profitable and successful enterprise. We raddle mark the tups on their chest to identify when each ewe has been covered (impregnated), as well as identifying if the tups are working properly and efficiently. My own tup won’t be seeing any action until mid-November meaning my ewes will be due to lamb on 10th April as I have to fit my lambing around the contract lambing I do.
Things on my small-holding are quiet currently. This week the ewes had their mineral drench, dose and feet check before meeting the tup to make sure they are in the best condition they can be. They’ve now gone to their wintering spot on a dairy farm as I don’t have enough grass here throughout the winter, so instead of paying the for supplement feed in the form of concentrates and hay, I pay £1 per head per week. This works perfectly for me as they flush on the grass pre-tupping and come back home in perfect condition.
I’m now getting ready to take over the running of a Lake District hill farm for two weeks, as the owner is off to do a book tour in America of his book The Shepherds Life. I’ll be taking over the first week of November.
I’ve just finished farm sitting on a Lake District hill farm, running a mixed flock of 600 Herdwick and Swaledale ewes It’s been an amazing two weeks and went very smoothly. Before the farmer left, I spent two days getting everything ready with him in terms of tupping etc but thankfully this is a farm I’ve been working on for several months so I knew pretty much what was what.
The Swaledale tups were let out before he left, so my biggest responsibility was rudding the three tups daily, ensuring they were working properly and beginning to cover a good percentage of their designated ewes as time went on. After the ewes have completed one cycle, I changed the rud colour over to ensure the ewes that had already tupped had not come back round into season again. This was a great opportunity for my young dog Butch to learn important skills such as holding flocks of sheep into a corner whilst I put more rud on the tups. She has gained so much confidence and progressed massively.
Other responsibilities included general shepherding duties, rebuilding gaps in stone walls, maintaining good ewe health, keeping on top of ewes’ feet and of course walking and feeding the three resident sheep dogs.
Less sheep work in November and December means they are very quiet months for me. Different demands of work throughout the year is a challenging part of contract shepherding, but I make a lot of my money in the spring/summer and if I balanced it out it would add up to the same amount as I would if I worked consistent hours through the year. Of-course I would love to be busier in the next month, but I know that four months of lambing is just around the corner and there won’t be a single day off or social life during that for a while.
We have our final NSA Next Generation session next week so I’m sad that we won’t be meeting again for anymore. NSA has given me an incredible opportunity, which will be forever thankful for. I have learnt so much and it’s helped me constantly improve my business and flock by becoming more efficient and productive. After every session I’m driving home and my mind is racing with information and how I can use it to benefit myself and improve more and more. It’s been amazing to meet with 11 other like mind young individuals in the industry and we’ve all become brilliant friends and I’d strongly recommend the NSA Next Generation Ambassador programme to any keen and enthusiastic young shepherds.