IT’S widely known that the hill sheep industry is one that is set to be one of the most hit sectors in Scottish agriculture when it comes to the looming political changes.

So you would think that the job of chairperson of the National Sheep Association might not be the most attractive role to throw your hat into the ring for, but that’s exactly what Jen Craig chose to do and for the last couple of months, she’s juggled her new job with her ‘proper’ job, at home on Normangill Farm, just outside Crawford, near Biggar.

We managed to steal her out of a pen working with ewes for an hour, to hear about what her roles involved, and what she thinks about the future of sheep farming in Scotland.

Were you brought up on a farm?

Yes. I’ve lived here at Normangill for my whole life and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

I work at home fulltime with my Dad, Andrew, and we’re really lucky that we get on great and work so well together.

We obviously have the odd heated discussion about things, but I think that’s natural with any job and when I hear some of my friends talking about their relationships with their parents, I know that I’m really lucky to have what I do with my Dad.

Did you ever consider another career path?

I can honestly say that I didn’t, I always wanted to come home ever since I was a wee girl.

I went and did my HND in agriculture at Auchencruive, which was great, and I met great friends and really enjoyed the experience, but I never had any intention but to come back and work at Normangill.

I did a few part time jobs elsewhere when I first graduated, but nothing ever compared. I always had plans in my mind that I wanted to try out at home and I’m very lucky that I’m getting the chance to do that now.

What does that business at home comprise of?

Normangill is a 1750-acre hill farm just outside the village of Crawford in Lanarkshire. The farm rises to 1000 feet and we run a flock of 1100 ewes – 1000 of which are pure Scottish Blackface.

We don’t currently have any cattle, but Dad’s at the stage of talking about ‘when’ we have cattle, not ‘if’, so that’s progress, and we’ll see what happens in the future.

We lamb all the Blackies outside and only the 100-head cross flock are lambed in the shed.

We sell all our wedder lambs at weights of about 30kg through Lanark and draft ewes usually go to Lawrie and Symington as well.

We actually sold them privately last year though. We just need to do what we think is best. At the end of the day we’re a commercial operation and we can’t always compete with the big pedigree boys through the markets’ sale ring.

Have you ever felt any discrimination as a female farmer?

I can honestly say that I haven’t. I get treated the same at the market and at shows and at home as all of my male counterparts.

My Dads father died when he was only eight-years-old, and it was his mother, my Nana, that ran the farm after that, so women farmers really aren’t a new concept for me – Dad’s actually the only male farmer at home in the last three generations!

My Nana was a really capable woman and she would actually talk about how much support she got as a female in farming, even at that time, so I think that speaks volumes about how supportive and inclusive agriculture can be as an industry.

What are the toughest things about being a hill farmer?

I think any hill farmer that takes the job seriously and says it’s easy, isn’t being totally honest. It’s far from easy but if it’s in your blood an is your passion, then there’s nothing you would rather be doing.

Normangill is a ‘proper’ hill farm and that brings its own challenges. We’re very exposed and at times that can make you feel isolated.

The Beast from the East was a terrible experience, I would never want another spate of weather like that if I could avoid it.

We lost a lot of old ewes, especially those in-lamb with twins. There was nothing we could do. It was almost like you were just watching it happen, which was heart wrenching.

It didn’t actually lose a lot of ewes from them being buried but there were parts of the hill we just couldn’t physically get out to.

How did you get involved in the National Sheep Association?

In 2014 I did National Sheep Association Young Ambassadors Programme. There was 11 of us from all over the UK, and I was one of two candidates from Scotland.

We took part in five delivery sessions about various different things. Things like business development and personal development and they were all great. The whole thing was aimed at developing the future of the sheep sector.

When that ended, I ended up on the NSA committee and things really just snowballed from there.

As a young farmer in the sheep sector there are many challenges to be faced, but the opportunities are also in abundance. Adapting to change is a fundamental part of being successful in what is an ever-changing industry and I want to try and help other young people have the opportunities I’ve had.

You landed the ‘top’ NSA job in Scotland this year, how did that happen?

I was really enjoying being involved in the organisation and a few people suggested to me the idea of putting myself forward as chairperson.

I discussed the idea with Dad – it’s him that has to pick up the slack at home when I’m busy with NSA business – and with his backing, I went for it and was lucky enough to be elected for my two-year term as chairperson.

It’s a great honour and I’m really excited to be a relatively young face at the forefront of such an important organisation within the sector.

I’m hoping that it is encouraging more young folk to get involved. As well as that, even if people don’t agree with my views during my term in office, then disagreeing is still increased involvement in what the NSA does.

It’s been a busy time since I was elected, meeting people and getting to grips with what’s a head of me. There are a lot of changes taking place in the organisation, but we just have to try and make sure that doesn’t have an adverse effect.

Generally, the role takes up a couple of days a week on average, but there will be some weeks I have no meetings or anything and other weeks where there is something on every day.

It’s a massive commitment, but not one I’m underestimating or taking lightly. It’s really a role that means putting your head above the parapet and opening yourself up to criticism, but that’s just the nature of the game.

What do you view as the main problems facing the industry?

Everyone says it, but Brexit it is obviously a huge worry. You can’t shy away from it.

I’ve taken on the role of NSA chairperson at a really worrying time for the sheep industry in Scotland and I certainly don’t underestimate the gravity of the task ahead of me but hopefully I can move things forward in a positive way.

The biggest issues facing us just now are, firstly, the LFASS situation. We really need to look at what we’re going to be getting payment-wise, moving forward. Will it be made up to the 80%? And if so, when?

LFASS is such an important part of our industry so we need to be lobbying our case and working behalf of our members to try and make sure they are are getting the best deal possible.

Predication is also a major issue. There are different predators effecting different areas of the country in different ways but none of them are any less important or, unfortunately, any less of a problem.

The NSA need to be, again, working on behalf of sheep farmers to try and implement measures to try and ease these pressures.

Sheep farming is a hard job as it is, without these added challenges.

The sheep sector is a massive part of the Scottish economy and we need to push ourselves and really show the country – and beyond – what we are worth.

I want to spend my two years telling our story and hopefully getting support for us within the wider economy.

Being a hill farmer, I’m very passionate about the future of hill farming within Scotland. We’re a sector that is in decline both in terms of sheep on the hills and also the people looking after them, but Scotland would look very different without us. We need a voice that emphasises our importance.

Are you involved in any other organisations?

I am also involved in NFU Scotland and have been for some time. It’s nice to get a look inside the industry from a few different stand points and NFUS does great work.

The National Sheep Association is obviously my priority just now though, there’s no debate about that.

What do you like to do in your spare time? If you have any!

One of the single greatest parts of working within the agricultural industry is the people. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. It’s an amazing community to be part of.

That in itself means that you make great friends in and around the industry so any down time I have is really spent catching up with friends.

Like most farmers though, that can often happen as sales or at the summer shows, but they’re great events and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Events like the Royal Highland Show are one of the highlights of my year. Especially now, I will be on the NSA stand fulltime, but it’s still a great week for seeing people and getting a wee catch up.

What are your plans for the future?

Looking forward, we want to try and keep moving forward at home. We’re happy with our sheep numbers but we’re gradually replacing the Cross ewes with pure Blackies.

We’re actually tupping one heft with a North Country Cheviot, so we’ll just need to see how that goes.

I’m a great believer in trying different things and if they don’t work, then it’s back to the drawing board, but if they do work, great!

We’ll just need to see what happens. I’m very lucky that Dad’s willing to back some of my crazier ideas!

The next two years will also obviously be taken up with a lot of NSA business but I’m already really enjoying it and I can’t wait to keep getting my teeth into it and – hopefully – start making a positive effect!