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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

‘A bad day on the farm is better than a good day in the office’ – sheep farmer (24)

That’s Farming editor, in conversation with Bizza Walters (24), Warwickshire, UK, in this week’s women in ag segment. We discuss her sheep farming roots, a lack of succession planning, establishing her own flock of Greyface Dartmoor sheep and current roles as a contract shepherdess, lamber and a rural adviser.  

“I was born and bought up on our 500-acre family farm in the Midlands alongside two younger sisters, and we are very close in age.

Originally purchased by my great-grandfather in the early 1900s, my father and his two brothers are the third generation to farm here. However, they will probably be the last. There was and still is no succession plan in place, so it is likely the farm will not remain within the family.

A big challenge is the lack of succession planning on our family farm. In a perfect world, I would love to take over the family farm. However, due to no succession plan in place, this is not possible at present, and it is likely to stay this way.

I think there should be more of a focus on this issue, and we need to encourage generations to talk to each other and get these plans in place.

Although it is not a nice conversation to have because, at the end of the day, you are having a conversation about your parents, grandparents – whoever it may be – passing away.

But it is so important to talk about it and make sure all parties are aware of what the next step for the farm and their future is.

Along with farming and working as a contract shepherdess, I am social secretary and vice-chair of our local Young Farmers’ Club, as well as an NFU Student and Young Farmer Ambassador for 2022 representing the West Midlands.

I studied at a local rural high school before heading off to study applied farm management at the Royal Agricultural University, where I graduated with a 2:1 in 2019.

Since then, I have been working as a contract shepherdess travelling all over the U.K. and beyond. For the past two years, I have been working as a contract lamber, starting at home and for a local farmer, before heading up to Scotland and the Orkney Islands with our farm collie, Dougal, who I could not have done it without.

This year, I also went to Iceland, which was an experience. Since returning from there, I now have a job as a Rural Advisor, chatting to farmers about the current grants available to them and helping them through this transition period from BPS to SFI.

Helping my dad out with early mornings at lambing time before school, having pet lambs in the kitchen (who ate all the herbs in the garden), riding the ponies around the farm with my mum and sisters at harvest time to drop off a picnic to dad and playing with my sisters in the woodland, building dens are among my earliest and fondest farming memories. It was idyllic.

The farm used to have dairy cows and a suckler herd, but we gave that up a few years ago and focused more on the sheep. We also have a bit of arable land and sell a lot of hay, as well as a merchant feed business.

The farm employs three people as well as using contractors. I occasionally help on the farm, mostly during lambing and shearing, but I am also a contract shepherdess. I am currently working as a rural advisor helping farmers with grant applications and the current transition from BPS to SFI.

Greyface Dartmoor sheep

We have a commercial flock on the farm, but I have my own pedigree flock of Greyface Dartmoors sheep (GFD) (flock prefix: Cinderpath).

We have approximately 600 commercial ewes and 14 Suffolk tups, and I have an additional three Greyface Dartmoor ewes, two lambs and two tups.

Ewe breeds include North Country Mule and GFD, while lambs are mainly North Country Mule cross-Suffolk and GFD.

NCM are renowned for being good mothers (good milk, easy lambing, hardy), while Suffolk tups produce good fat lambs that finish well on our grass.

I was desperate for my own flock, and my parents said I could only have one if it were a rare breed, so I am helping an ‘endangered’ breed of sheep.

So, in January 2021, I was given two GFD ewes and a tup for my birthday (the best present I have ever received; some of my friends found it strange!).

In that April, one of the ewes lambed (a tup and ewe lamb), and I kept them both. I then had two ewe lambs this year, which will stay in the flock, and I will put them to the ram in 2023.

The ewe lamb from last year, alongside the two original ewes and hopefully, a couple of new ewes, will be put to the tup in September 2022.

I sold my original tup in February of this year and purchased a new one a couple of months ago to introduce new bloodlines into the flock because I am keeping the progeny of the original tup.

He is a very handsome lad with good broad shoulders and nice markings. I have decided not to lamb the ewe lambs until their second year to let them grow and establish themselves before being put in-lamb.

I am not breeding them commercially or to fatten the lambs, and it is also a hobby (at the moment), so I want to give them time to mature.

We start lambing mid-end of February for around four weeks, and this takes place indoors.

We lamb at this time of year so we can get the lambs fattened and gone before hay making and harvest, and we also get the spring/summer market.

Furthermore, we flush the ewes before tupping to encourage good ovulation and give us a tighter lambing period. Moreover, we sell all our commercials as fat lambs; some go to market, and some go to the abattoir.

We cull out any problem ewes each year, such as those with bad feet, mastitis etc. We want to keep ewes that give us twins, milk well, have no/little assistance at lambing, and those that raise good, fat, healthy lambs whilst maintaining a good body condition score themselves.

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Nature and mental health

Being outside with nature and animals is the most enjoyable aspect of farming for me. I struggle to sit still!

In my opinion, a bad day on the farm is better than a good day in the office. You cannot beat being outside and striving to create a happy and healthy environment for your animals and the wildlife around you.

Mental health can be a tough one in farming when you are working alone and long hours. You strive to do the best for your livestock, and it can sometimes go wrong, which can be tough.

Young people

I am keen to encourage more younger people into the industry because without them; agriculture has a very worrying future ahead! I am also a big advocate for eating local, seasonal produce.

We are lucky on the farm that we have space to grow our own fruit and veggies and have lots of orchards with apples, damsons, sloes, blackberries and more. Furthermore, we harvest these for ourselves each year and make lots of food and drink with them.

My primary responsibility is my GFD flock, which I solely manage, as well as two horses and lots of dogs. Early starts in the morning ensure everybody is fed and watered and happy, as well as checking them at night.

We take the dogs for a run when we go out for a ride around the farm and check up on the sheep.

Being up to date with current markets and news is so important. I would also recommend seeking professional advice on the best strategies for your flock.

Paying attention to detail will enable you to work towards the most efficient and profitable business model for your farm and its sectors.

If you are an aspiring sheep farmer, stick at it. It is hard work, and sheep do like to find the most obscure ways to die, but it can be so rewarding and is worth it. Moreover, it is not just a job; it is a lifestyle choice, and it is one that I would not change for the world.

I do not like to have regrets; however, I would have done a couple of things differently, such as engaging and networking more at university (e.g., attending events).

I would have loved to have travelled/worked in New Zealand or Australia and experienced sheep farming out there. I intend to go and visit friends out there, but with my career now in progress, I will not be able to work out there.

Establishing my own pedigree flock that is growing each year is my highlight. I hope to get a few more ewes this summer to put to the tup in the autumn. I am a member of the GFD society, who are so incredibly helpful with any questions or issues I have.

Recently, I bought a new ram to introduce new bloodlines, and one of the society members helped me study his breeding to ensure he was a good fit for my ewes. I have met many wonderful and interesting people who are always happy to help.

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Women in agriculture

I have never experienced any discrimination within the industry because I am a woman, and I would like to hope this is the norm within the industry, but I know it is not.

I like to show them that just because I am a woman does not mean I cannot do what they do. My mum worked as a qualified land agent for a while, and she also dabbled in a bit of farm work.

The attitude to women in agriculture was much different back then, but when she passed all her exams and qualified as a land agent, she used to say to them, ‘I could do your job, but you definitely could not do mine,’ and that soon made them pipe down! So that is the attitude she has always bought my sisters and I up to have.

I have been very fortunate in that I have worked and still work alongside some wonderful men that do not treat me any differently because I am a woman.

Over the last few years, I think the male/female divide has lessened, and it is now not a big deal if you are a female working in agriculture. It adds diversity and a different view to the industry.

I do not think it is just women that need encouragement into the industry; it is people as a whole. There is a real issue with a lack of new entrants and people joining the industry in all its different sectors, and this is something that desperately needs addressing.

There are so many different sectors within agriculture. When people think of agriculture, they think of a middle-aged white man with a flat cap, which is so untrue these days.

I work in agriculture now, but I am not a farmer as such; I am advising farmers on grants and payment schemes available to them, and trust me, they love having conversations about what money is available to them.

Jobs in agriculture range from vets to mechanics to auctioneers; it is such a diverse industry, and there is something for anyone and everyone!

I have attended a few meetings (I won’t name who/where!) where I have felt very unwelcome by older men who were attending, presumably because I am young and a woman and therefore ‘different’ to them.

No one spoke to me or showed interest in why I was attending and what I had to offer to the meeting. I felt so riled because it goes back to my point that we desperately need younger people coming into the industry, but why would they if this is the type of welcome we receive?

It has not put me off, as I want to make a point of attending these meetings and events, and I am genuinely interested in them too, but I would not want to take my younger sisters or my friends along to them to be greeted with that attitude.

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Reflection 

From a very young age, I knew that agriculture was the industry I wanted to work in. I have had the most amazing childhood on the farm and would not change any of it for the world.

The issue of succession planning here on the family farm does impact me. Still, it also makes me that bit more determined to one day have a farm of my own, so I can give any future generations of mine the amazing experience I have had in life.

In five years, I would like to be lambing at least 20 Greyface Dartmoor sheep (hopefully more!) on my own land. Also, I want to introduce new bloodlines and really study the progeny I am producing and try to better it each year.

Having a pedigree flock is very different to a commercial flock, but I love how passionate the society is about Greyface Dartmoor sheep, and slowly but surely, it will hopefully come off the rare breed list.

The whole world is going through a very turbulent time, and there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the agricultural industry.

We must keep pushing the Back British Farming campaign and encourage the general public to buy local, seasonal British food to support our farmers.

With prices increasing around the world, the cost of food will inevitably increase. If possible, I would recommend growing your own herbs and vegetables and sourcing your meat locally.

Not only are you keeping your costs down, but you will also be putting money back into the British economy, which we could do with right now.

I have an Instagram page, @adventuresofashepherdess, where you can follow my sheepy journey and see what I get up to in my day-to-day life on the farm at home, my contract lambing jobs and work with the NFU.”

To share your story like this Greyface Dartmoor sheep breeder, email – [email protected]

See more women in ag profiles.

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