It’s a brisk Spring morning as I pull into the farm and I am greeted by the open door of Zoë’s farm vehicle, a dutiful looking 4×4 Honda CRV. Sporting dents – which I discover later are the result of cow kicks, and a missing wing mirror – as I approach I find Zoë seated inside, taking a well-deserved five-minute rest…
Situated in a picturesque valley near Maidstone, the couple’s farm is surrounded by rolling meadows and burgeoning orchards. Beneath the bright morning sun, casting its idyllic gold tint across the acres, Kent’s nickname of ‘the garden of England’ certainly feels apt today. Nevertheless Zoë is quick to share that things aren’t always rosy in farming, and she and her partner Chris are living a slightly nomadic lifestyle right now, grazing sheep on parcels of land spread across a 20-mile radius.
As we sit in ‘the break room’, aka the back of Chris’ Toyota Hilux, nursing enamel mugs of tea, she tells me, ‘It’s traditional for many in the farming world to come from generations of farmers and either inherit the family farm or be employed to manage it. But for Chris and I, it’s just the two of us. Two people to oversee the whole operation!’ I applaud their teamwork, knowing there is no way I could work with my partner day in and day out, especially when you add livestock into the equation.
Through chatting on the tailgate of the truck, I learn that Chris at least comes from a farming background, but for Zoë it has been a bit of a wild ride to say the least. Prior to joining Chris on the farm she was living in east London, and working as a hair stylist in Soho.
The pair laugh at how it all started, with Zoë recalling ‘He called one day to say he had bought 32 in-lamb ewes…and that was that really. From then on my Sundays consisted of trimming hooves and rescuing tangled lambs from the hedgerow brambles – a helpless situation they seem to love getting themselves into.’ I share a not-so fond memory on this very task and we all chuckle about the renowned, albeit endearing stupidity of sheep.
Nevertheless Zoë quickly realised that this was something she enjoyed and after taking time off to help Chris during lambing, decided to use her savings to buy animals and becoming the farm’s chief – and only – shepherdess: ‘You’re only on this earth for a short time’ she shrugs, after which all that was left was to learn how to be one!
‘The hardest thing for me was learning to be around animals,’ she openly admits. This came naturally to Chris, but having never spent any real time up close and personal with sheep Zoë found it hard, something not helped by her mild phobia of cattle. ‘So, that was definitely my hardest lesson to learn.’ With time and persistence though, it came and she now displays a deep understanding of her flock, enabling her to care for them with both efficiency and tenderness.
Although Chris and Zoë are very much a team, much of their daily routines differ, to allow the duo to ensure everything gets done. Zoë explains how, ‘at this time of year, the farm completely comes alive; the blossom emerges, grass shoots appear and most importantly all of our ewes come home to the farm to give birth, which, like all sheep farmers around lambing season, is complete and utter mayhem.’
Lambing is very much about teamwork, an all-hands-on-deck task. ‘You are so exhausted both physically and emotionally by the time you get into bed at night, you don’t know how you are going to manage to do the same thing the next day, but you do because they need you.’
Recalling last year’s lambing, Zoë tells me that their record was 43 lambs born in one day, assisted by only the two of them. ‘I can honestly say that was the most rewarding day I’ve experienced in my 30 years on this earth’ Zoë declares proudly. Lambing season is so full of joy and drama we talk about it for ages, with Zoë humorously describing various episodes. ‘At any one time and you’ve got a ewe with twins with milk in only one teat, so you are having to top them up with milk from a bottle. Then you’ve got a ewe who’s been in labour for hours, trying to push a lamb which is determined to come out backwards, so you need you intervene and deliver it yourself.’
Trying to hold back laughter she goes on, ‘you then also have 20 ewes and their lambs to catch and number, two lambs outside being licked clean by their mothers and you don’t know whose is whose and you’ve not eaten or sat down since your toast at 5am that morning but somehow, you sort it all out.’
‘Then the adrenaline wears off and you realise you resemble a zombie who hasn’t washed their hair in a week and have afterbirth on your sleeves and you stink of iodine and Lamlac!’ (Ewe milk replacer). I feel worn out just listening to her, but Zoë’s starkly real account is fascinating and her upbeat, positive personality shines through as we tour round the farm in the iconic CRV.
Farming aside, Zoë has found herself becoming something of an Instagram inspiration for many aspiring female farmers. With an engaging community of followers on the platform, @the_chief_shepherdess is where Zoë shares daily insights into her life on the farm and her transition from hairdresser to hardy female farmer.
I am introduced to Effie, a free range, utterly fabulous Pygmy goat and undoubtably the star of the show. When I was first told that Effie would need to feature within this article, I was unsure what to expect, but dubbed ‘the Beyonce of the goat world’, Effie truly is as glamorous as she sounds, with Zoë humbly claiming: ‘People only follow me for her!’
As we make our way towards the cattle – admittedly my favourite part of this interview – Zoë begins to introduce me to the mixed herd and I soon realise why they are known as the ‘liquorice allsorts farm’: A group of white ewes which includes South Downs, Texels and Kents or Romneys, whilst the motley crew of wild ewes is a merry band of Soays, Hebredians, Shetlands, Herdwicks ‘and everything inbetween’ Zoë laughs.
During the autumn and winter months, Zoë spends most of her time inside the barn rearing calves and tending to any patients Chris brings her. Explaining that whilst she is by no means a vet, owning livestock requires care of certain conditions ‘in-house’, and both Facebook and Instagram have provided her with fantastic remedies and advice that have helped many animals in her care.
The sheep are farmed to produce lamb boxes that are sold direct from the farm each year, as well as producing mutton which is sold at their local market. Cattle are also reared for beef too, and whilst Zoë loves to care for and rear animals, rearing livestock for the meat industry allows them to sustain their farm and themselves whilst providing all the animals with a wonderful, loving, happy. and healthy life whilst they’re here.
‘A lot of people often ask me, do we keep the sheep to produce wool and sell this as part of the business model, but, in reality it just isn’t feasible. It almost costs you more to have the sheep shaun than it does to sell the fleece, so it just doesn’t make sense for us.’ Something which sadly, I knew already.
Zoë really is proof that you certainly don’t need to come from a long line of farmers to become one. ‘You just need to want to do it with all of your being and really, really want it.’ She tells me with a contented smile. ‘You can kiss goodbye to those cosy Sunday lie-ins and silky smooth hands,’ she continues ‘but, rest assured, you will have the fullest, most exciting life, overflowing with reward.’
Finishing our morning together at the liquorice all sorts farm, I am reminded that whether it’s meat, fruit or vegetables, hard-working farmers like Zoë and Chris sacrifice so much to produce our food but rarely get the appreciation they deserve.
Zoë waves me off, though, ever-positive, not before sharing once last thought: ‘I used to think the biggest compliment was a client telling me how much they loved their hair. Nowadays, I feel that when someone praises the taste of our lamb: We bred them, we raised them and then we get the honour of eating them, and to me, as a farmer, that is truly fulfilling.’