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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: 8 minutes

‘My health has made things more difficult, but farming is the best job in the world’

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Cheryle Seedhouse (43) of Highland Fibre Farm in this week’s women in ag series. We discuss her previous careers, farming sheep for their fleeces, interest in over forty sheep breeds and buying a new farm.

“I am from Tamworth in Staffordshire but live in North-East Scotland, Aberdeenshire. I am the only farmer in my family. Recently, we found out that my great-grandparents were farmers. They had an apple orchard in Stratford Upon Avon where they made cider.

I studied equine studies and then Business at Rodbaston Agricultural College. One of the farming students bet that I could not get up as early as them and do a full morning shift in the milking parlour because of what I was studying.

So, the next morning, I got up early and made my way to the milking parlour. I sat on the wall and waited for them as they were all late.

The lads were surprised I turned up, but they showed me what to do. I did my full morning shift of milking; they squirted me with milk straight from the udder several times, and they did not warn me when a cow was going to poop when I was within the splash zone.

At the end of the shift, when they were hosing down the parlour. They held me still and filled my boots with freezing cold water. I enjoyed every minute and went back to help with morning milking many times.

I always loved animals, but I remember when my mum worked in Meriden, Warwickshire. My dad would take my sister and I to pick her up from work some days.

Behind where she worked was a farm. I would hope my mum would be late from work as I would stand and watch the cows and sheep in the fields of the farm.

Only recently did I find out that the farm that sparked my interest in farm animals is Charlie Beaty’s farm – globetrottingfarmgirl on Instagram.

Now, I am a part-time farmer and part-time weaver who is where I use the fleece from my sheep to make rugs.

Fotojet (74)

Highland Fibre Farm

Since starting our farm – Highland Fibre Farm – only four years ago, I always had sheep.

I run the farm, and my partner, Asher, helps with heavy lifting and any days I am too sick to work, as I am disabled.

We farm sheep for their fleece and have over 40 different breeds and cross breeds – from tiny Soay sheep to large Suffolks and Teeswaters

I started with a few Jacob ewes and have collected anything that looked interesting along the way. We have also had a few escapees that have ended in some more unusual crosses.

2022 lambs are from two tups—one Soay x Gotland and the other Soay x Jacob.

They produce fleece that I can use either soft for spinning and selling (Soay x Gotland) and sturdy dark fleece for my more hardy rugs.

I like adding a bit of Soay into the mix because we need hardy sheep that can cope with the harsh Scottish winter. It also makes a more compact sheep.

I found out through accidental breeding that Soay x Scottish Blackface lambs grow an incredible fleece, and that Soay x Gotland sheep make the cutest, little, sturdy, silver colour sheep with a lovely soft and fairly long, fleece.

Fleeces not meat

Many sheep were given to us by commercial farmers when they found out our sheep do not go for meat, but we keep them for their fleeces.

Every commercial farmer has their favourite pet lamb/cade, tup or ewe, and when asked if we have space, we will give them a forever home.

One farmer asked if I could take in one sheep and turned up with six; we just laughed and took them in.

In total, we have 163 sheep, 4 Dexter cattle and 5 goats. Lambing takes place from March-May, and in 2022, we operated an outdoor lambing system for the first time.

Lambs stay with us or go to other fibre flock homes. We aim to breed sheep with a good temperament, a good fleece and a hardy nature.

Fotojet (79)

Health

I have several health problems, so heavy lifting and running after animals are not things I can do.

Working in very hot, dry weather and high winds cause breathing problems. I have a benign tumour in my throat, my oesophagus is paralysed on one side, and my lungs are damaged.

I have a tear in my diaphragm and bad asthma, so breathing alone can be a problem.

Simple tasks like shearing one small sheep or handling a strong sheep can cause me breathing difficulties. On top of all that, I also have fibromyalgia.

Chronic pain and chronic fatigue entwined with random bouts of depression can leave me unable to even get out of the house to see my animals for weeks at a time.

However, I am responsible for animal management, general dogsbody, feeder, welfare, and chief injection person – although I keep stabbing myself as much as any sheep.

Interacting with non-farming people to help educate them about British farming is something I am passionate about. My sheep may not go for meat, but I will defend British meat farmers until the day I die.

Reflection

If I could turn back the clock, I could give a long list of things that I would do differently, but the life I have had and the decisions I made got me to where I am now.

I have worked in big finance houses in London. Furthemore, I trained to be a solicitor before realising I did not want to be one.

I have worked on the railway signalling trains. Whilst they are not what I want to do now, they all made me who I am and got me to where I am right now… happy.

Fotojet (76)

Women in ag

We have been in areas where I was treated the same as my male counterparts and areas where I was not.

We recently moved to a new area, and I have found that when calling around in search of hay or straw, some male farmers automatically assume it is for horses because I am female.

In some areas, yes, women in farming are receiving adequate recognition for the work they are undertaking. Where we lived before, all of the farm vets were female, and a good amount of the farmers were female.

It was accepted that women are just as good as men as farmers. Where we live now, though, I have yet to meet another female farmer.

Just getting out there and showing our faces at shows and on social media helps break down the idea that it is an all-male profession.

A career in agriculture is good for your soul. Being out in the air with animals to look after is a great thing.

I am quite a tough cookie and worked on the railway as one of only 3 female signallers out of 112, so I do not tend to get offended by assumptions made about me.

If a man feels the need to pick up a bag of feed and put it in my car, I will let him, while I go and pick up another bag, put it over my shoulder and carry it to my car myself.

Fotojet (75)

New farm 

This year, we bought a farm; the stone barns are over 120 years old. We will be working on replacing all the old timber internal fencing and barriers with modern metal barriers and fixings to make it easier to keep clean.

The roof of the house and all the barns need some work before winter, and three old sheds need work before any animals can go in them, so for now, those are the plans for the farm. I may even take 2023 off lambing.

I want to focus on building up the softer fleece breeds such as Gotland and Teeswater.

Farming for the fleece won’t make you a lot of money, but working with your hands on the fleece is good for your soul.

My ultimate goal is to be able to introduce sheep and work with fleece to more people.

Renting a farm was a necessary evil to begin with. My health has made things more difficult, but because I love farming, I feel it is the best job in the world.”

To share your story like Highland Fibre Farm, email – [email protected]

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