Happy Monday! It’s the start of a new week and I feel ready to conquer it. A feeling I’ve not felt for a long time now.
To celebrate, and not put pressure on the fact that my passion for writing appears to be returning, I wanted to revisit some of my own favourite articles from the magazine Editions over the years.
This I am hoping will not only help to fuel my own motivation to create NEW content and find new stories to share with you all without the financial pressure of needing to generate ad revenue, but we’ll all relish in revisiting some of the In The Country magazine articles I created, starting off with Emma Gray, life in the wilds of Scotland and her incredible sheepdogs.
Since publishing this piece, Emma, her husband Ewan, son Len and the dogs have moved to the picturesque and remote Scottish Isle of Bute and now call Ardros Farm their home! Appearing in recent series of This Farming Life sharing the ups and downs of life in the highlands and life after Fallowlees Farm, the place where everything started…
Article photography by Neil Denham.
From becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Northumberland Sheepdog Trials, and breaking two records for breeding and selling the most expensive bitch, followed by the world’s most expensive sheepdog, Emma Gray has achieved some incredible things and come a long way from digging through snow drifts to find pipes had burst and flooded her new home, the 150-acre Fallowlees Farm.
Having first made headlines in 2012 after becoming the UK’s youngest shepherdess at aged 23 to take over a sole tenancy
at Fallowlees Farm in Northumberland owned by The National Trust, Emma informs me she had been farming Fallowlees for maybe a year before people began talking about it, “after I won a sheepdog trial, the event photographer came out to capture us at home. The Newcastle Chronicle ran a story on my journey which resulted in the Daily Mail catching wind of me, it allwent crackers after that which was really exciting.”
Though Emma grew up on a farm, and is third-generation farming stock, she worked as a full-time contract shepherdess in addition to helping out at the family farm, though admits this was a really difficult juggling act. Inspired to embark upon a new adventure after calling off her engagement, Emma shares, “I know I always wanted to farm in my own right and Fallowlees was the perfect answer to that. The break up really gave me a push in the right direction, though I’d never lived by myself before so it was really quite daunting.”
Despite Fallowlees being imperfect in more ways than one, it’s off-grid, it had no mains electric, no mains water or gas when Emma first moved in she explained, “I was prepared to accept anything to get a farm, and I knew I wouldn’t start off at the top
of the ladder and Fallowlees back then was probably bottom. I first moved here during that awful winter in 2010/11, I think, and I couldn’t even get into the house. I had to dig through snow drifts and when I eventually got in I discovered the pipes had burst and flooded the house. I lived in one room – the kitchen, as I couldn’t heat the house. It really was a baptism of fire.”
Arriving with just four sheep, Emma remembers how she let them out, only to watch them quickly disappear over the dilapidated drystone walls and into the forrest and didn’t see them again for eight months. “I learnt a lot of lessons the hard way. When I first bought my own sheep, I had saved up, hauled them down from Scotland and was so excited. When it came to scanning time, each ewe just showed up empty, empty, empty, no lambs. It was because the farm has a lot of ticks which had spread a disease to the sheep, I was so embarrassed but it was just one of the huge learning curves I’ve experienced.”
Emma continues, “When I arrived, I was a silly naive girl who had no idea about what running a farm entailed. The responsibility of the farm really made me sit up and become a responsible adult. Before then, when things went wrong I had a boyfriend or friends to call on to help, but here the buck stopped with me. I learnt so much about fixing things, I had the most infuriatingly temperamental generator, and as you can probably imagine, we had a very dramatic relationship at the time yet I relied on it for heat, light, everything. Though it was a daily struggle, securing that tenancy was the best thing that’d happened to me up until that point.”
Farming aside, and onto dogs, the crux of Emma’s life and business, I was intrigued to find out when her love for dogs started. Emma shares with how, “I’d always been desperate for a dog but I was never allowed a pet. We had a farm dog but that wasn’t the same, I’d begged my Dad for one but he always said no. One day my Grandfather turned up with a Border Collie puppy for me, he was probably the only person my Dad wouldn’t send packing. I called that little dog Bess and she really fired up my passion for working with dogs. We learnt together and she took me right up until my college days. I think it was more the dogs that drew me to farming, as opposed to farming itself. In order to be good with the dogs, you need the sheep, they go hand in hand and so it seemed the perfect career path for me to take. Since then, I’ve never been without a dog.”
Farming without both the companionship and help of the dogs on the farm is unimaginable to Emma, “trying to gather sheep without a dog feels like someone’s cut off an arm, it’s unbelievable.”
Posing the question of what is it about Border Collies that she loves so much, Emma describes how, “it’s like a compulsion to me now, I think it’s like the same compulsion collies have to work. They just want it more than anything else, they’re the Rolls-Royce of the canine world, working effectively with a collie is like driving a really well-tuned car.”
Agreeing Border Collies can be sorely misunderstood,
Emma informs me how her collies know their job and are fulfilled, without a job they’ll go self-employed. Often this self-employment isn’t the type of job you’d choose for your dog, chasing cars and biting people can be a common job choice of a self-employed, unfulfilled dog.
Becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Northumberland Sheepdog Trials, I was eager to know what makes a champion dog and winning partnership, Emma explains its, “talent, an ability to read sheep, to be able to make friends with them but powerful enough to adapt to tough sheep and equally slacken off when they’re wilder or more sensitive, paired with the ability to try.”
The characters and personalities of dogs are far more complex than we naturally understand, in agreement, Emma tells me,“sometimes I could swear Jamie is telepathic. The partnerships I build with the dogs are amazing, I wonder to myself sometimes, how do they get it, but they just do. The dogs become very attuned to me, sometimes I spend 10 or 12 hours with them which is more than any human and they really get to know me.” Likening the partnership to the one between a rider and a horse, “you’re relying on the horse to not throw you off whilst the horse is relying on you to give it direction and putting its trust in you not to place it in an unsafe situation” continues Emma.
Being on the receiving end of the sale of the world’s most expensive dog (at the time) earlier this year, Emma sold home-bred two and a half year old Megan to an American ranch owner for an enormous and eye-watering £18,900 at an auction in North Yorkshire. Questioning what made her meet the criteria of world’s most expensive dog, Emma tells me how, “Meg was the full-package, she had the pedigree, the health tests and trial results winning the overall league and Northumberland Championship. She made such a big noise for herself, there were no questions to answer because she’d already answered them.”
Receiving some unexpected backlash after selling Meg, Emma admits this was, “a bitter pill to swallow, people were accusing me of not loving or caring about my dogs, yet I knew that if someone was prepared to spend such an obscene amount of money for a dog, then they’re going to really treasure and value them. I had to accept that if I was going to be in the public eye, not everyone would like me or agree with my lifestyle and decisions.”
Hitting headlines once again after Emma wrote a book: One Girl and Her Dogs (13 border collies at the time of writing the original article!) in which Emma talks openly about the difficulties of an isolated rural life. “Dealing with the solitude day to day was perhaps the hardest thing, it is easy to go days and days without seeing people. You don’t have them foisted upon you the same way you do in a town, the less you see people, the less you actually want to see people.”
Life changed once again when her path collided with now husband, Ewan’s. Welcoming son, Len to Fallowlees Farm in April 2019, and more recently moving to Bute as a family. Sharing with me at the time how, she has high hopes that he’ll grow up with a natural appreciation for the countryside and farming, “his best friends are sheep and dogs” she expresses with a smile.
From fire-fighter to full-time farmer, Ewan now mucks in alongside Emma to run the farm as viewers of This Farming Life will confirm! Emma explains, “farming together full-time has been our joint dream ever since we met I think, Ewan’s experience has broadened since we’ve been together and he’s adapted perfectly. He really had to take over the mantle last year during lambing time when I was pregnant with Len, I don’t think you really learn properly until your safety net is taken away.”
The best thing about running a farm,
Emma concludes is that she has been able to financially support herself on what is classed as such a poor farm, “people said it is so small and too far out to be viable but over the past decade I’ve built up a good business and I like to think we are quite well thought of in the sheepdog and farming world.”
When asked about what her favourite thing about farming is, Emma shares that, though today isn’t a ‘good’ day as she’s having to do her VAT return, “the joy of my job is that every day is not typical. Things change so rapidly throughout the season. I love being my own boss and not being answerable to anyone. I feel as though I’ve got my own kingdom, it’s very Lion King-esque, but the feeling of being able to look out the window, and literally everything the light touches is our kingdom, that’s special. We might not be as well paid as professional footballers, but I love it. Ewan and I are farmers until we die.”
*This article has been cut short from the original piece for digital re-use. I’m a story teller by heart and when I am entangled in a good story, like Emma’s I could just keep going!
I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane with me,
Until next time,
Lots of love,