Tilly’s blog reveals shear joy of Suffolk sheep farming
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
Breaking into farming hasn't been easy for Tilly Abbott of Ipswich after she decided she wanted to spend her working life looking after sheep.
For the past four years, Tilly has spent her holidays working on sheep farms while studying for an agricultural degree at Hartpury University in Gloucestershire.
Such is her passion for the job, she has worked all over the country and region. After returning to her family home near Ipswich in 2020 from Scotland following the lambing season, she decided to go one step further and start her own Instagram account.
She called it The Suffolk Shepherdess and began regular photo and video posts showing the kind of work she is involved in every day with the aim of educating the public about the industry.
“I have contract lambed and shepherded everywhere from south Devon to the Scottish borders, and I’ve even managed to fit in a harvest season too,” she says.
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In the past year she started to contract shear for small flocks around Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk and Bedfordshire, and worked for sheep farmer Tim Crick of Benacre.
She started in the agriculture industry in 2018 after attending an agricultural course at a college in Bedfordshire where she gained hands-on experience and a passion for the agricultural industry – in particular shepherding.
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“My goal with The Suffolk Shepherdess is to educate people about what I do and showcase my work to encourage the next generation to take up farming – especially women and people from a non-farming background such as myself,” she says.
“Agriculture is typically thought of as a male-dominated industry but recent TV shows, such as The Yorkshire Shepherdess and other social media accounts have made it obvious that this is changing. I also think it is a great way to show how the industry can have a positive impact on the environment as well as the health and welfare of the animals involved, which I am hugely passionate about.
“If you work with animals – especially livestock and sheep in particular – you know that not everything goes the way you plan – often plan B doesn’t even work.
“When working in agriculture the hours can be long and stressful at times. As you would imagine, 18 hour days in a tractor at harvest or in the lambing shed can cause tensions to run high from exhaustion, lack of sleep and stress – not helped by inevitable disagreements from unwilling new mums convinced that the lamb they just gave birth to is not in fact hers.”
Another obvious bump in the road in such a male-dominated industry has been sexism – especially as a 21 year old woman, she says.
“However, I am very fortunate to have only come across this a handful of times and I personally feel that times are changing with the rise of high-profile female shepherds helping this along,” she adds.
She has faced some difficult experiences – but she wouldn’t change any of it.
“They are often where I have learned my most valuable lessons and made some wonderful friends. Not everything is easy – you won’t see eye to eye with everyone you work with – and inevitably you will break something and have to tell your boss, but these experiences will teach you things you could never learn in a classroom.
“If I were to say anything to my previous self or anyone coming into the industry it would be to always believe that you can do it, because you can. No one is born with knowledge, we all must be taught or learn by experience.
Life has been “rather hectic” since she entered the industry and her day is a long way removed from the experience of her sister, who works in an office in London.
“My latest lambing season saw me juggling university with working 100 hours a week in the lambing shed, which meant listening to lectures in my headphones while trying to catch and lamb an uncooperative ewe. Alongside my day job working with 3,000 breeding ewes, their lambs and followers, I also try to keep up to date with friends and loved ones, and be in bed by 8pm ready to get up and do it all again the next day. However, I adore every moment of it despite the challenges,” she says.
Her farming experiences have changed the way she consumes food “massively”, she says.
“Instead of going to the supermarket and picking up any leg of lamb or vegetables, I try to buy food produced by a local company, and definitely food that is produced in Britain if that isn’t available. I also check welfare standards,” she explains.
“I am grateful that my work allows me to meet so many different people, especially now I have started contract shearing, as I love talking to people about their small flocks of sheep and those who are genuinely interested in farming and what it has to offer them, the environment and the animals.”
Lockdown brought new issues to the industry as more people went out and about dog walking leading to a rise in livestock worrying but she feels that getting the message out via her blog may have helped. “Getting even one person to understand the devastating effects of such cases could prevent more damage in the future,” she says.
The first step – breaking into the industry – was the hardest, she adds. “It can be very difficult to find a farm willing to take on and teach a novice – especially as I don’t come from a farming background. Many of my friends from college and university also face this issue – especially those like me that are young women from non-farming families.”
In between all her other tasks, Tilly maintains her own small flock of orphaned lambs.
“I also carefully consider what to post and what not to post as I like to be as truthful as possible about the industry, but I accept that not everyone may agree with everything. I try to give people a small insight into the day to day life of a shepherd, showing the funny and not so glamorous things we have to do, alongside the wonderful landscapes and animals we get to work with,” she says.