The last #FollowAFarmer of 2016 is a bumper interview with new entrant Rosie Hetherington. Rosie gives some great insights in to her passion for pedigree sheep breeding, working with dogs and some of the struggles she’s facing as a first time farmer. Enjoy!
James: What’s your farming background?
Rosie Hetherington: Non-farming background, I discovered agriculture when I was 17 looking for vet school work experience and fell in love with farming, that sounds terribly cliché doesn’t it, but it’s true! My parents were a bit surprised by it all I think as we are in an urban area really with most of the local farms either built on or swallowed into big units.
J: So you found Farming while at the vets? Did you grow up wanting to work with animals?
R: Well farming was the last thing to tick off for my application, I’d only done small animals and petting zoo type things previously. I have always loved animals, mainly stemming from my brother being allergic, so naturally you want what you can’t have. I didn’t imagine I’d end up farming or working with them full time to be honest, just probably as a mad cat lady. Then when I started on the local farm, I was just so amazed by it all and constantly wanted to know more, and in Ag I guess you learn every day, which is what apealled to me.
J: Living in an urban area, has it been hard to gain experience?
R: Very hard. Obviously there’s less farms for a start, and I have been building my own flock up with the farmer I originally worked for which has tied me to the area, so I either have to leave my sheep, which for extended periods is not ideal for anyone, or not try. I went and did my degree in agriculture which helped with the theory, but currently it is a bit of a catch 22. I would love to farm full time but feel like I can either get experience and no money or save money but not have enough experience, if that makes sense?
J: Have you always worked with sheep?
R: Yep, and recently I bought my own cows to compliment the sheep and I guess to get me used to them too.
J: How long have you been building your flock?
R: 4 years really, although I did have a couple of pet lambs I reared the year before. I was at Uni in Newcastle and I was coming home for weekends and twice a week during the week I was basically never there, to sort the animals and work at Asda and other jobs to fund it all. That’s why after all the work I’ve put in, not just on farm but in my other jobs to afford the pedigree sheep I’ve bought, I can’t just sell them up and go off and get a “proper” shepherding job. Not to mention the guy I farm with is retired and they are his hobby now too! It wouldn’t be fair.
J: What made you choose to go down the pedigree route as opposed to purely commercial?
R: I knew I couldn’t make pure commercials pay because I simply can’t get the numbers, I have about 80 to lamb and that’s in 2 batches as I only have a small shed, so that’s the sticking point. Hoping to make more selling them as breeders than simply fat lambs. I chose what I liked, but end of the day I think Blue Texels and Charollais are going to suit future lamb production more than the other terminal sires- finer boned, easier to lamb, kill out better, the Charollais flesh easily really, are hard working tups and milk like hell. Blues, ok they’re not as milky or as easy to lamb as Charollais but good for a terminal sire and, most importantly, produce small vigorous lambs. You’re getting all of that Beltex shape the premium lambs need too.
J: Did your interest in the breeding side of things start as part of your studies or has that just developed as you’ve grown your flock?
R: Both I think, I always had an interest in genetics and breeding first in small animals in particularly dogs but sheep gave me a platform to do it for real and try to improve. I’ve also got into showing too, as both a way to meet new people but also to hopefully show off my stock.
J: Have you done a lot of showing?
R: Not loads. Mainly local shows because I’m currently on MV accrediting, so a lot of shows you are limited to MV only. 1 more test to pass!
J: Some are of the opinion that breeding for showing can have a detrimental effect on the commercial viability of sheep. As someone who breeds commercially minded pedigree sheep, what do you think of this school of thought?
R: I don’t disagree, there are some breeds/breeders who I regard as a disgrace to be perfectly honest. But showing is a showcase of shepherding history in the UK, people come and see the different breeds still championed in their local areas, and the new continental ‘meat machines’ and it is so educational. It scares me how detached the public is from farming and shows help to bridge that gap. I remember going to my first show and being lit up and inspired by the obvious passion people had for their livestock and that’s what made me want to do it. Equally preparing animals for show is a display of stockmanship and pride in your work, for many in rural communities it is the only holiday they will get and is perhaps quite important in terms of mental health. But of course breeding animals solely to look pretty (which many will do) is detrimental, but in the long term their market will dry up, nobody is going to continue buying those animals so eventually bad breeders out themselves. Our breeds now particularly those moving towards recording are suited to what we do here in this country which is unique, no other country really has the stratified system we do over here, so whilst yes you can go down the NZ route in terms of genetics I don’t think it is completely possible. There’s no reason a commercial animal must be an ‘ugly’ one I do believe you can have both, but you’ll always have extremes, and yes there will always be ‘fashion’ but under pinning it all is the commercial farmer who needs an animal to do the job, if yours can’t do that then the paper their names written on can go in the bin!
J: You mentioned earlier you first became interested in breeding through dogs. Having a job that pretty much necessitates having dogs must be a dream come true!
R: Exactly! I love it, the partnership you have with them, when you work with your dogs you really are the best of friends, they try to think like you and anticipate what you’ll do, almost an extension of your own brain, it is the best! That’s why I enjoy it so much, but I’m blessed to have such a good dog and such nice youngsters to bring on
J: Training a dog is quite the skill! Where did you pick that up?
R: Yeah it is, I can’t claim to be an expert. I think dogs are like children they thrive and learn off consistency and fairness. Weirdly I did a degree module in animal behaviour and that has definitely helped set the foundation of training methods for me as you understand how they think. Secondly I was recommended a book written by Glyn Jones which I would recommend to anyone. It takes some digesting but it is a brilliant book. I have also been extremely lucky to have advice from some exceptional dog handlers- the croppers, John bell, Jessie Maine and John Cassey when I did some work experience with them. Watching other people train their dogs is one of the best ways to learn I find. You don’t learn anything from others breaking your dog for you. Although I do think it can be beneficial to see someone else run it or video it because you can see its faults and what it does well much clearer. Finally I owe a lot to my bitch Saph, she isn’t 2 yet but she’s something special, I’ve been offered a small fortune for her but I wouldn’t sell her for anything, she’s so natural but she’s taught me so much, she never sulks and she’s an exceptional listener when I have asked her to do something she disagrees with she will look at me then do it as if to say you’re an idiot I knew that wouldn’t work, and vice Versa, she just has such a lovely feeling for sheep, just say her name and she knows where you need her to be, I already know it’ll be a long time if ever before I get one like her. YouTube is also quite handy for picking up tips but I think a lot of it is common sense to be honest!
J: It sounds like you have an incredible relationship with Saph.
R: She’s my canine soul mate!
J: What’s your favourite thing about farming? I’m guessing working with the dogs must be pretty high on that list!
R: Yes of course! This might sound silly but I feel like I’m a part of history when I’m out tending sheep and working dogs, doing what shepherds have done for millennia, there’s a freedom in it i think, you just sort of feel like you’re in the natural cycle, rather than being part of the rat race of modern work/life. When you land a lamb, or nurse a ewe back to health or anything along those lines you feel like you’re really doing something worthwhile.
J: hat doesn’t sound silly at all. Shepherding up on the hills and fells across the country has barely changed at all. The addition of a quad and shearing machines are probably the only additions to that way of life in centuries.What about your least favourite things? What’s been the biggest challenge or challenges you’ve faced so far?
R: Besides the work experience problems, I just find the lack of opportunities so frustrating. We look for land anywhere we can but we are generally out competed by horsey people who will pay a fortune for the land or local finishing units own it and don’t want to know. Some of the land is increasingly far away, hard to say how safe it is and you worry all the time with them. The land we get around home tends to be for a reason e.g issues with dog walkers/people cutting fences etc. We have had 2 dog attacks, 1 ewe slaughtered in the field and a bunch stolen in 4 years so you just worry all the time I guess. Something like a small county council farm would be just what I need, but why would they take me on with no money/little experience? That’s kind of why I feel really stuck at the moment. I’m trying to formulate a plan in terms of selling boxed meat/hides/wool and training sheepdogs in my spare time but sometimes you just feel like the hamster on the wheel getting nowhere! I’m trying to improve myself, lately I’m a pupil of a well respected dog trainer. I’m also a Tesco Future Farmer, which is helping to give me a sense of direction but at the moment I don’t feel like I have a solid foundation for the future. Farming is about connections and that’s what I’m trying to do, my plan is to make as much of a go of what I have so far and then hopefully I’ll be given a opportunity to expand in some way, ideally away from this urban area, as most of the land I have currently will undoubtedly be built on in the next 10 years or so, we don’t have much security.
J: There seems to have been a horrific amount of dog attacks over the last couple of years. I don’t know if we just see the issue more because of increasing use of social media amongst farmers or not. It’s a massive problem. Do you think the public are just so disconnected from it that they don’t realise the damage they are doing or that folk simply don’t care?
R: I think social media is highlighting it but I think it has always been a problem! Both. I think it is an arrogance they see a green field and think their dog deserves the right to roam it and do what they want in it to be honest. They also just expect their dog to be so well trained as to stop it’s highly evolved hunting instinct the second they ask it to. Most dog owners don’t have the time/too lazy to have such obedience from their animals. They don’t understand dog behaviour at all (which is also evident from the number of people being attacked by dogs). Personally I think dog owners should by law be required to be signed off from puppy classes or face fines/dog removal, there are just too many nice dogs with bad and/or lazy owners. I’ve had lambs badly with worms as they leave shite all over the field and wtf is the idea with getting your dog to shit in gateways like not only do I have to walk through this I probably have to build a catching pen there so if you need to sort feet out it is actually disgusting. People just don’t care where their food comes from they say they do but it boils down to price and price is king. Which is terrifying when you think of food security in probably the most volatile time in the planets history.
J: What can be done to raise awareness in your opinion? Obviously outlets like the Farmers Guardian are doing their bit with the ‘Take The Lead’ campaign but that is preaching to the converted and likely isn’t reaching the members of the public that are letting their dogs run wild in the fields. Is there anything farmers can do, or do we need things like Countryfile that has a much larger audience to step up and show more of the harsh reality of country life?
R: Yes I think it is preaching to the converted! I think it needs to start through vets, dog magazines, maybe even dog breeders, dog agility events, agricultural shows, police force (education and of the law itself). It needs to be a community effort a dog walker should pass another nd say excuse me can you put that dog on a lead. Farmers need to build relationships with their dog walkers. It is a community issue, because I genuinely believe a proportion of these dogs are being neglected, they’re left at home/bored/not in a suitable environment for their needs and attacking sheep is only a facet of their behaviour- it will escalate, sheep are relatively sedentary imagine a child pulling at its tail or racing to pat it- it doesn’t bear thinking about. Countryfile should have a responsibility to highlight rural issues but I’m afraid it only highlights what bbc politics want it to which is happy clappy countryside without saying anything too extreme as to offend any group of people except farmers because they’re already complaining about stuff anyway.
J: Just quickly going back to Tesco. I didn’t realise you were on the Future Farmers. How have you found the experience so far? I thought it was fantastic but due to various personal things, I don’t think I made the most of it.
R: Yes! At your recommendation, I applied! I’m really enjoying it so far, as someone not from a farming background I’m meeting some really interesting people my own age. I find it really inspiring and as I say it is helping me to focus on my future plans.
J: I’m glad you got on! We did quite a bit on accessing land and share farming, which should be of real interest to you. Is share farming something you’ve ever thought about?
R: Yes share farming is something I’d love to do- anything which would give me the opportunity to keep doing what I do and making a living out of it is all I want. Obviously I’m share farming on small scale now but I think the concept will really come into its own in the next few years so I’d like to be part of it!
J: What does 2017 hold for Rosie Hetherington?
R: I don’t know.. positive change I’m hoping for! It can’t be much worse than 2016 anyway! But with a touch of good fortune I’m hoping it’s going to be the start of something big! Hoping to get all my plans together and keep moving forward!
J: Thanks for chatting Rosie. Anything else you’d like to add?
R: Just a plug for the Future Farmer Foundation. I’d just like to take the chance to really encourage young people to apply for the next intake, as it’s such a great learning and networking opportunity!
If you’ve enjoyed Rosie’s interview, you’ll find her on Twitter @R_o_s_i_e_H – do give her a follow! You can also find out more about her pedigree stock on her new Covert House Blue Texels and Charollais Facebook page