That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in discussion with Gemma Howey in this week’s women in ag segment, in a two-part interview.
“I am 34-years-old and currently based near the Scottish /English border.
I am from a farming family background, born in a small village called Bellingham near Hexham.
From there, my dad took on a farm tenancy with Buccleuch Estate.
I spent my school years at Langholm Academy, and although my dad farmed sucklers cows and many hill ewes, I spent most of my childhood days at a horse riding stables near Roadhead.
From when I was ten until I was sixteen, my weekends, any school holidays, including the entire six-week summer holidays, I stayed over at the stables.
I classed the stables as home, and with the riding centre also having holiday cottages, I met so many people from all over the country.
The owner also ran a small flock of ewes, where my passion began.
My time spent there is when I began my journey that has ultimately made me the determined, hard-working, strong-willed, ambitious woman I have turned into.
The things I struggled with was criticism and self-belief, especially with me being the girl that was very quiet, shy, low in confidence, who played football rather than paint nails, which did make me feel bullied, judged, and ridiculed.
And even though today when I doubt my capabilities and achievements, my journey into the farming and agricultural field has made me into the woman I am today, helping me through many setbacks, highs and lows, but more importantly, for me, when my overthinking/mental health has been difficult to explain to others.
At thirty-four-years-old, despite my struggles with mental health, I have achieved a lot in my life, which has positively impacted me.
It has carved me into the girl who will go the extra mile to prove critics and doubters wrong that have commented that I will not succeed in this industry solely because I am female.
It saddens me that females need to prove their worth and capabilities in this day and age.
Fortunately, I have taken the stance that the critic’s opinions positively impact my life. It spurred me on to grow, prosper and prove them all wrong.
Hopefully, this article will clarify that I am a capable and successful woman who does not have to talk my way into a job.
Showing my skills and work ethic has gained me respect and justified that my successes are solely down to my abilities and experience.
Nobody let me have it easy because ‘I’m a girl’. Proudly I can say that nobody has gifted me anything in my life. I owe nobody for where I am today.
As mentioned, I am usually extremely critical of myself and my achievements. Still, now it’s time I embrace this unexpected opportunity to publicise how far I have progressed in this industry.
From eighteen, I worked self-employed, with no agricultural degrees or qualifications, and unbelievably, I have never needed a C. V.
I worked predominately with livestock, both sheep and cattle, but lambing season is my busiest and favourite time of year.
I also am a fully qualified and certificated bulldozer, 360 excavator and articulated dumper operator.
So I will go as far as to say I am a unique woman if judged on my job description and would love to meet other women like me to share stories.
My lambing career began at 18 on an estate near Carlisle, and the majority of my work since then was achieved with this estate.
In August 2021, I took on the full-time job as a head shepherd and marsh herd on this estate. Seven years ago, they asked me to take this position, but until 2021, I never felt ready to settle in one place.
So, I took the plunge, stepped out of my comfort zone. I have never been in charge, and I am now the one making the decisions, plans, bringing my ideas to the forefront and ultimately, if things go wrong, it is on me.
I am responsible for 1,400 breeding ewes on a privately owned 4500-acre estate based on the Solway Firth. Aside from ewes, the estate fattens up to 500 cattle each year, runs 130 suckler cows and has arable ground too.
Becoming the salt marsh queen
Most would settle with 1,400 ewes to manage, especially as this is my first full-time role.
However, I like a challenge, so I also took on the responsibility of the estate’s 2600-acre salt marsh. I am the first female marsh herd on this estate.
From May to October, we stock the salt marsh with all our ewes and lambs, enabling us to sell salt marsh lamb destined for Marks and Spencer’s shelves.
We are one of the main suppliers for the salt marsh market, amongst others. Also, around 1,000 store cattle graze this marsh during the summer season.
A large majority of cattle are our own, along with some local farmer’s cattle as well. Overseeing an area of this vastness is a big responsibility, not for the faint-hearted.
One I can be sunburnt in shorts, the next horizontal rain battering my face and strong winds blowing right through me. No waterproofs seem to keep you dry and warm out there.
Also, due to it being tidal, it is extremely susceptible to flooding occasionally, which brings the high risk of livestock drowning if not managed correctly.
Quicksand proves challenging too and is extremely unpredictable if you have not experienced it before.
Quite often, we face the challenge to free livestock that get stuck in the sand. Sometimes digging sheep and cattle out can take us up to 8-10 hours.
It is very hands-on and demanding on your body digging them out, but this girl thrives on the challenge and does not hold back and let the men do all the work.
We gather stock off the marsh if there is a risk of high tides, which is not like gathering a field. Sheep have their own routes and tracks and can take several hours.
During some summers, I have been out there at 4 am to gather before it gets too hot for the ewes and the dogs.
Then I could be out at 10 pm chasing cattle away from the rivers so they do not cross to neighbouring farms.
This place is unique and one of the largest privately-owned marshes in the UK. I certainly feel privileged and fortunate to be in this position that very few will ever have the opportunity to experience.
Lambing ewes is my passion since I was eighteen. My enthusiasm, passion and capabilities never went unnoticed.
Lambing staff, with my drive and devotion, are hard to find these days. I usually take on three Lambing jobs each season.
It does not phase me to lie down in the straw with ewes some nights. I have made my home in caravans that many females would refuse to stay in. Eighteen-hour days for six weeks tested me at one lambing season, but I succeeded.
Over the years, I have lambed sheep in many areas of the UK, including Dumfries, Lockerbie, Carlisle, Sellafield, Durham.
Besides the above jobs, I will briefly tell you the three biggest achievements I have been lucky enough to have experienced and accomplished in the lambing sector.
These jobs have pushed me forward to value myself and prove that my experience and skills are regarded as more important than gender in this industry.
In 2019, I leapt out of my comfort zone, gained some self-belief from somewhere, and took on the challenge to travel and work in the huge upcoming sheep sector in China for one month.
After four months of discussions, e-mails, visits to the Chinese embassy, visa acceptance and finally flights booked, I was off on what turned out to be the best experience of my life.
If Covid had not caused such a stir, I was all set to return to China back in March 2020 on a nine-month contract to train, advise and adapt the lambing skills and capabilities of the Chinese farm labourers.
I have been unable to return, and my ‘Chinese dream’ has been shattered. I tend to bury myself in work and need a long-term goal to keep my mind focused and driven.
China was the goal for me, so the realisation of maybe never achieving this ambition has impacted my mental health drastically.
Another door opens
However, as one door closes, another opens and lambing season 2021, opened the door for me to be asked to work on an estate near Bath in Somerset.
Ironically, I met the gentleman who runs this flock when I was in China. Mr Harrison runs a flock of English Mules near Bath in an absolutely beautiful part of the country.
He is also chairman of NSA and appeared on Clarkson’s Farm series. I worked four weeks of night shift down with him and his family, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Also, 2021 took me to my first-ever outdoor lambing; all my previous experience had been indoor and night-shift until April 2021.
This job was in the Scottish Borders near Jedburgh, where I was involved in the lambing of 3,500 outdoor ewes. This job opened my eyes massively to the differences between indoor and outdoor systems. Both have their pros and cons.”
Tune in for part two of this interview with Gemma Howey.
See more women in ag profiles.