Following an almost 400 mile drive up from Sussex in ‘Purdey the Pathfinder’ and an epic amble through the Lake District passing Scafell Pike and the rest of the Southern Fells, our spontaneous rainy day drive gifted us with experiencing all the nuances of this breathtaking and imposing mountain range, the flanks of which twisted and turned with dramatic effect as we pressed on through the moody atmosphere (with less than a quarter tank of fuel).
Wondering if there was a better view in Cumbria than that which we had experienced on our impromptu drive the day before – considering walking was off limits given the relentless torrential rain Mother Nature decided to throw our way in July no less – we were pleasantly surprised as we reached the home of The Red Shepherdess, in the heart of the Cumbrian countryside.
A quaint red sandstone brick village location backing on to acres and acres of rugged rolling fell, we were greeted by a smiling and waving red headed shepherdess – Hannah Jackson. With her various working dogs running out eagerly to greet us, winding themselves excitedly around us with wagging tails, Hannah is ready to roll.
We venture out to the closest field behind the house where we are greeted by her entourage of ‘pet’ animals. Chickens, ducks, a few Pygmy goats, Jim the dashing Dales pony and Gunner who almost overtook Hannah in the starring role of the day. I guarantee you’ll never meet a sassier, cheekier nor well-cared for ram/wether, nor one who loves the camera as much. With the euphorious sounds of sheep baaing, goats bleating, cattle mooing and even pigs oinking, we set to work.
Photographs taken, and now feeling windswept and ready for a warming cup of tea, we headed inside for our chat. Catching my eye as we entered was the beautiful shepherding scene stained glass panelled door commissioned for Hannah by her father. Inside, warming tea in hand we sat down to talk about Hannah’s journey to becoming The Red Shepherdess.
Now 27, Hannah started farming 7 years ago now after studying a degree in Animal Behaviour. Initially, Hannah had intended to go on to study a Masters in Marine Biology, something she had been forever passionate about growing up, even travelling to Canada to research Killer Whales where she lived in a tent with no electricity and no running water for the duration of her trip.
Upon returning home, she recalls a family trip to Coniston in the Lake District, something her family would do every year for Easter ever since she can remember. Only this time, Hannah tells me she remembers seeing a lamb being born whilst out walking through a field and this, she refers to as her ‘lightbulb moment’, she went on to say, “I knew then, this is what I wanted to do. We were driving back home to the Wirral, and I just came out with it, I announced to my family that I wanted to be a farmer. They laughed in jest and said, that they could see that one coming as I hadn’t shut up about the lambing for a good hour afterwards.”
From then, farming was always on her mind. “I’d look in the fields whilst walking, or watch videos and read things online to try and understand more about how farming worked, and eventually decided to defer my Masters for a year.”
“I applied for every single sheep farming job I could find, bearing in mind I’d never set foot on a commercial farm before this point. The last time I’d been to any kind of farm was aged three or four and it was on one of those petting-zoo type farms! My CV screamed, I love whales and dolphins and here I am wanting to work with sheep.”
At the time, Hannah had a pet four-year-old Border Collie called Dan who’d never interacted with sheep before, yet she was curious as to whether he might make a decent sheepdog. Derek Scrimgeour of Killiebrae Sheepdogs in the Lakes, an international sheepdog trialler, having represented England in the International and World Trials 18 times with 10 different dogs, invited Hannah and Dan to stay and train with him for a week – she laughs fondly as she recounts how she ended up staying 9 months, learning how to work and train dogs whilst helping out on the farm.
“Dan was useless but, that is where I got Fraser – the main man, who was two-and-a-half at the time. He [Derek] bred Fraser and I’d worked him a bit with success during my stint with Derek and so, I was over the moon when I got him as a 21st birthday present.”
From there, it was clear Hannah had her heart set on becoming a shepherdess and loved the Lakes, and so, her family made the decision to buy a place about a year into her farming journey. With roots now in the area, she was able to begin networking, establishing relationships with locals and begin to work on various farms in the area as a contract shepherdess, building up her experience all the while.
I had to ask Hannah about her time on Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins, I was curious to know if it was as tough as it looked. Her response, “I can guarantee, the real experience was harder than it looked. I thought it’d be hard, but it was another level. I think only about 2/3 of what we actually did made it on to TV so you can imagine it really was relentless!”
As a person who is passionate about breaking down stereotypes, proving she can achieve things that people perhaps doubt she is capable of, Hannah explains how “getting into farming was a massive challenge for me, and so I was like ok, what can my next challenge be?”
An avid fan of the programme beforehand, she recalls how she remembers two days before the application deadline seeing that women could apply for the first time and she just had to apply. “The application took me something crazy like two days to complete, it was deep, intense with questions like what’s your biggest regrets in life, what are your biggest fears etc. After a while, I hadn’t heard anything and was starting to wonder what was going on, so I rang them to check they’d received it, well, I’d had a complete blonde moment and had sent my application to the wrong address.”
Naturally, Hannah was ‘gutted’ she explains. With only days to go until this year’s cohort public announcement was due to be made, after having been told they’d keep her details for the following year, she recalls receiving an email after a sweaty session of CrossFit to burn off the frustration of her mistake, asking her to do a Skype interview the following day. Of course the answer was yes.
Completing this, followed by a physical fitness test, logical test and CPAT test, Hannah was given the green light and was told to meet the crew at Heathrow Airport the following Saturday. She didn’t know where she was going, or any more about what was to come, armed only with a pair of boots arriving at Heathrow, it was there she was told that she was off to Chilli for 12 days with only the clothes she had on and a toothbrush!
Talking of her experience, “farming massively helped me, you’re lugging heavy feed bags around, turning sheep and it’s always hands-on come rain or shine.” I was intrigued to know whether she found the physical or mental aspect of the experience harder… “Physically it was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the mental side of things is where it is at. The only thing that keeps you going is your mind and in the same breath it is the main thing that’ll defeat you. I learnt so much about my own mind through the experience.”
When it comes to Instagram, it pays to be unique and Hannah’s striking hair colour is just one of a multitude of things which sets her apart from others, that and her work ethic. When we talk about her decision to begin sharing her experience on social media – of which Hannah’s is in excess of 100,000 followers combined, her hair colour becomes a topic of conversation. “Initially, I took to social media as a form of networking, to connect with other people within the industry here and around the world, so I thought, well I need something that people will remember me by, and so The Red Shepherdess was born.”
“Now, though, the reason behind my activity and presence of social media has progressed into something more. I am focused about engaging with the public, teaching people about farming and giving them a real-life insight into what happens on British farms.”
Her presence and growing following on social media has led to a number of collaborations with brands such as Barbour, Mitsubishi, Ridgeline of New Zealand, multiple features on BBC’s CountryFile and even a trip to Australia which came through her Facebook page believe it or not!
“If we want people to empathise with and support British farming then they need to be able to see what we are doing on a daily basis to understand. In my experience, people are so keen and open to learning about what we do, why and the struggles we face, in order to support us – it is a massively growing area of interest and Instagram has been such a driving force of this because it creates a bridge between us and those who have next-to-no connection to farming.”
I was intrigued to know why Hannah was drawn to sheep in particular, the focus is the 250 ewes and lambs, although the farm is home to a menagerie of animals.
So, why sheep? “I think I opted for sheep over anything else because I felt that coming into farming with essentially no experience, they seemed more manageable, less potentially dangerous and easy to work with. Above everything else though, I love them! It often shocks people that they each have such different individual personalities. Although, trust me, some days they do everything in their power to annoy you, but they are great. Despite working with hundreds of them on my own farm and others where I do contract shepherding there are always little gems that stand out and stick in your mind.”
Watching dogs work livestock is something which utterly fascinates me, and in turn watching the way that farmers communicate with them, getting them to work the flock or herd is almost like witnessing a foreign language being spoken but with much more magic because it is between man and beast. It just doesn’t seem possible to the by-stander (me) and I stood in awe as I watched Hannah and Fraser work to bring in a mob of lambs.
When asked about training and working dogs, Hannah shares with me how, “it teaches you so much about yourself, you become conscious of yourself in a completely different way; from your stance, your body movements, the tone of your voice etc. It’s like anything though, it is difficult until you know how, but I think the thing to remember is, you nor the dog ever really stop learning, the working relationship between you is constantly evolving.”
Being a woman in a traditionally and stereotypically male dominated industry, I was interested to know if Hannah had faced any particular challenges or setbacks as a result of her gender.
“I’ve never really let it be a massive issue, I think the minute you start to get hung up on things like gender equality in this industry, that’s when it becomes more of an issue. People have made sexist comments in the past, some in jest, others not, some say they’re joking but you know they mean it really, but I used these to fuel my own determination.”
I asked whether Hannah felt as though she’d had to prove herself in the industry, she smirks as she explains, “yes for sure, I mean as a female, red-headed scouser having never set foot on a farm before, I had a variety of things ‘against me’, but SAS definitely gained me a decent amount of respect from the industry and community, because they can see your grit, strength and determination firsthand. I think it can be easy for people to cast a group of people in the same boat, for example; women aren’t strong but in actual fact, mentally, women are in a lot of cases, stronger than men and often that can be forgotten in the agricultural industry. It’s not just the physical aspect that is needed to succeed but also the mental, you need the drive to get up and out when times are tough or the weather is rough and women often hold the family, the farm and the wider industry together in a different way.”
We all have different strengths and qualities, but we need both of these in equal measure within the industry to drive it forward, from everyone, whether they be male or female, young or old and whatever your sexuality.
Talking of her favourite thing about farming, Hannah describes how she loves that, “every day is different. No matter what day it is, it never feels like a dreaded Monday morning, I never find myself longing for 5pm or Friday to roll around. I love what I do every day, it doesn’t feel like work. I get to spend each and every day with my best friends – the dogs. I wouldn’t change it.”
There is a growing number of farmers sharing the highs, lows and daily life on the farm on social media, with that comes both benefits and downsides. However on the whole, the pros outweigh the cons. It is no secret that the general public have never before been so disconnected from the food they eat, “it’s scary,” Hannah comments. Accounts such as Hannah’s in my eyes are helping to preserve and secure the future of British farming in a constantly evolving and ever modernising world.
British agriculture is certainly facing uncertainty currently as we sit bobbing on rocky waters, with so many issues pressing and pulling the industry from every and any which way possible, whether that be Brexit, Covid19, animal welfare and so much more. “I think sometimes, we can forget farming is a business and often we can forget to put our business head on,” says Hannah, “it’s all about rallying around and getting the backing of the British public because without them, the industry won’t survive. Without their support, no one will buy our produce, they’ll just opt for value rather than more moral based consumer decisions.”
I was keen to ask Hannah what advice she would give as a first-time farmer, to those who are interested in pursuing a career and life in agriculture but are unsure of how, often farming is criticised for being pretty inaccessible to those with no connections, but Hannah is proof it is possible.
“Farming is such a tight-knit community, once you’re immersed in it, it’s fantastic, you’ll likely find you’ll have support for life but, breaking into it and proving yourself in the first place is hard, I won’t sugar coat it. I felt like so
many doors were closed in my face in the early days, but eventually the right one opened and I never looked back. When that open door presents itself, take it and run with it. Worry about the rest later.”
Another thing Hannah was keen to stress was, “don’t do what I did and stick to one thing – sheep. Try and build experience and knowledge in as many different aspects of farming as you can. For example, I have no real knowledge of arable farming because all I’ve ever worked with is sheep and cows but it would benefit me to have a more diverse knowledge of the wider industry for sure.”
Boxed lamb is the heart and soul of Hannah’s farming business here in Cumbria. Having built up a loyal and growing network of local customers, family, friends and friends of friends and so on, this is one aspect of the business which is evolving year on year. “Instagram is a great (and free) marketing tool too, I’ll put a post up saying something like, 10 lambs going today head to the website to order’ and within minutes I’ve sold out.” You can view Hannah’s website and order fresh produce as it comes into stock here.
As we came to the end of our time together, with the most adorable flat coated retriever puppy curled up beside me and a worn out Fraser sat by my feet demanding attention, I had one last question – Danny, her fiancé.
Together, with their Border Collie puppies Swift and Drift, Hannah explains that their two worlds have blended together seamlessly and whilst their careers are different – Danny being a farrier, the plan is to farm together, grow the farming business to 400 breeding ewes and live here at the foot of the beautiful fell in Cumbria. With CountryFile set to film both Hannah and Danny work Swift and Drift on the sheep for the first time the following day, it certainly seems that life is only set to get better for the pair and I for one cannot wait to be part of it with In The Country.
Article photography by Luke Flower, Flow Visuals Photography. To follow Hannah’s daily antics on social media head to her Instagram account: @redshepherdess or follow her on Twitter by searching, @redshepherdess.