An Island Sheep Farmer: Morning Musings

It’s 7am and we are fast approaching the end of October. My menfolk have just bundled out of the door, laden with packed lunches and hot flasks. I quickly shut the door as the sun is yet to rise and although Venus, the morning star, shines bright above the trees, it is cold. Bitterly cold.  The cold that whispers of impending frost in the days to come.  

I pour myself a steaming, milky cup of tea and now here I am, in the silence of the early morning, writing to you.  Let me introduce myself.  

My name is Jo. I live on the Isle of Skye, an island of the Inner Hebrides, just off the North West coast of Scotland.  Born in Glasgow, my family came to Skye in the 1980s when I was a toddler and other than a stint at University, I’ve been here ever since.  

I’m a wife and mother to four. I’m also a farmer. My husband and I have a few hundred sheep, the obligatory Border Collie sheepdogs, chickens, ducks and a Useless Cat. Actually strike the cat, we haven’t seen her since early June.  I digress. 

The sun has almost risen. Plump, pink marshmallow clouds are dotted above the hill and below them, I can see some of the flock grazing in the just-light. They are the hoggs – this years ewe lambs, whom we have kept to join the breeding flock. All being well, these sheep will be with us for years to come.  The weather is still being kind to us but we are hurtling towards Winter and the sheep have a long, harsh few months ahead of them.  Winters here on Skye are dark, cold and wet. So very wet.  It rains lots here. The worst months are January and February. It’s all still to come. And for these young hoggs, it will be their first Winter experience.   

For us, the Winter marks the beginning of another cycle in our shepherding year. The shorter daylight hours bring the ewes into season and we will bring the rams – the male sheep – into the fields.  The rams have spent all Spring and Summer as a group of bachelors. Lounging around, their bellies growing steadily as they satiate themselves with the grasses, heather, wildflowers and herbs galore.  Lumps of beasts, seemingly with no passion or motivation.  Until the ewes come into season. 

Suddenly, the rams come alive.  They strut around proudly, sniffing the air and picking fights with one another. Frantically working their way around the field of ewes, barely stopping to eat, only one thing on their minds.  For a few weeks this goes on. And then it is over. Exhausted and skinnier than when it all began, the rams return to their bachelor pad to recuperate. Poor darlings.  

All being well, the ewes are pregnant. We tend to the flock over Winter.  Some sheep will live happily on the hill tops while others will need extra feeding and care. We rise everyday, pulling on woolly hats, mittens, waterproofs and wellies to carry out our work but it won’t be until February that we find out how many lambs we are expecting.  The ewes are pregnancy scanned, in much the same manner as women are. Our Scanner Man travels to Scotland from New Zealand every year, always arriving at the shed with a smile on his face and stories to tell.  The week prior to scanning is hectic and stressful. You see, our flock aren’t all sitting in fields and easily brought together. Most of them are spread on hills, far and wide.  Gathering takes hours and hours and hours.  The obstacles are many. Main roads, broken fences, high tides. Acres and acres of knee high heather. The weather is notoriously abysmal for our scanning gather.  Wind, rain, thunder and lightning. It never fails to be truly miserable.  But when the Scanner Man arrives, the mood lightens and a weight is off. That part is done.  

Spring then brings new life.  The first flowers bloom, the days become longer and we bring the flock in close to have their lambs under our watchful eyes. It is our busiest and most sleep deprived few weeks of the year as we ensure that lambs are born safely and thrive for those first, delicate days of life. During lambing, I can often be found reviving a hypothermic lamb at six am on the kitchen floor, then helping a struggling ewe to give birth in the dead of the night, her steaming breath dancing in the light from my weakening head torch. It is work that we take very seriously. And although the majority of the flock birth and raise their lambs without our assistance, those that need help take a lot of time and energy. Still, for some reason – seemingly universal among sheep farmers – it is our favourite time of the year.  One which fills my heart. 

Suddenly it’s Summer and among other things, this means that it is shearing time for our flock.  Every year, their woolly fleeces are shorn off. We do this solely for the benefit of the sheep.  In hot weather, wool – especially dirty wool – provides the perfect place for flies to lay their eggs.  When these eggs hatch, the maggots who emerge dissolve the flesh of the sheep and very quickly eat deep into the body, quickly killing the sheep if it isn’t treated.  Shearing is a way to prevent this from happening. Having that large woolly fleece removed also helps them to stay cooler. 

Shearing is a family affair for us.  My husband shears our flock with basic hand shears. No electric or battery powered hand pieces are to be found here. It is a slower process than having professional shearers in but at the moment that suits us better. In past years, we used to send all of our wool to the British Wool Board – a cooperative who collect UK wool, market it worldwide and sell it at auction.  However, dwindling wool prices were disheartening. We knew that our wool was worth more to us than the paltry cheque that would come in the post, and so we started to use it ourselves.  I use a small amount for knitting and crafting and the bulk of our wool is put back into the land, in the form of compost. We use hundreds of fleeces every year on our vegetable plot. There is not enough space in this short essay but I can, hand on heart, say that our wool helps to feed our family.  

It is also one of the main reasons that our sheep are suited to living here. Their thick, woolly fleeces are the foundation of it all.  Their fleeces have grown back in since Summer and the wool will keep them warm in the coming months; holding heat close to their bodies and shedding rainwater, much like a waterproof jacket would for you and I. 

Watching the young ones now out of the window, it’s amazing to see how they and their fleeces have grown in the six months since they were born. And startling how quickly another year has passed and the cycle starts again.  

But now, the house is stirring.  I hear my youngest children rising. The sun is almost above the trees. I have outdoor chores to tend to and breakfast to prepare.  

— Jo Spencer  

To see more of my day to day life and all that it entails, you can find me on Instagram as @_jo_skye.