Taking centre stage for this week’s ‘Women in Agriculture’ feature is a lady whose limits have no boundaries.

Aberdeenshire's Irene Fowlie, from Strichen, spoke with Kathryn Dick about her career highlights and how she has established her pedigree Suffolk flock as one of the best in the country.

What is your background in farming?

I spent my childhood on a farm with my mum, dad and two sisters. I was always the one out helping dad, however I did well at school and was encouraged to go to university. I married my farmer fiancé the week after I graduated with a degree in English.

Ever since, I have combined farming with my family – two sons and a daughter – as well as having a teaching career of 20 years, my sheep and many voluntary commitments.

What is your job?

Jim and I have always worked together in partnership, and I suppose my career has had three main stages.

First, I was a full time mum and farmer’s wife – including doing the farm accounts and wages –and I was also district and division commissioner for Girl Guiding. It was then that I established my Suffolk flock as a hobby, with six ewe lambs, when my boys were pre-school.

In 1990, I added into the mix my career as a full-time English teacher, county commissioner and a Suffolk flock of 50 ewes.

When I retired from teaching, I was able to concentrate on running my pedigree Suffolk flock of 120 ewes, which has been performance recorded for more than 25 years. I only sell shearlings, mostly to commercial farmers but some to pedigree flocks. I have 14 registered rams and 34 gimmers with the Suffolk society this year, as well as exporting semen and sheep.

This year, we made flock history by exporting six rams and seven gimmers to Russia! We have also exported semen to the US. Indeed, whilst Essie Glenfiddoch is off to Russia, the semen from his twin brother, Essie Bismarck, is off to America. The genetics from the flock are now in 14 countries!

I also assist Jim in the office and manage the paperwork for our renewables: wind turbines, biomass and solar.

Favourite show?

I do enjoy the Highland Show and we have met so many people from all over Scotland and further afield. It’s great to catch up with all our cattle and sheep friends, enjoy the hospitality of the trade stands, check out all the new innovations and even do some ‘farming’ shopping.

Best and worst advice?

The late, Bob Cumming advised me to go my own way and not be influenced by the trends of the time. When I set out to breed pedigree Suffolks, he advised me to breed long, clean sheep with a leg in ‘ilka neuk’ and to continually consider the needs of the commercial world.

I am not sure about worst advice – either I didn’t get too much bad advice or I probably recognised it as bad advice and just pleased myself by ignoring it!

Job satisfaction?

We were short staffed this spring and I had to do all the sheep jobs myself, just after lockdown – fortunately, our lambing was over! I spent most of the day, every day, touring round all the parks on my quad bike.

It gave me such pleasure checking on all the ewes and new lambs, the stock rams and also the shearling rams and gimmers from last year’s lambing, knowing that I had bred them all.

My Facebook was continually supplied with photos – Jim says I get most satisfaction from the appreciation of others of the quality of my sheep when they come to buy. I sold 30 shearlings and 34 gimmers from home, some to repeat buyers and many to new breeders. I love it when the potential buyer can’t make up their mind!

Biggest disappointment?

In September, 2007, we had all 33 shearlings prepared for Kelso Ram Sales and the day we were about to load the lorry, foot-and-mouth restrictions were announced and Kelso was cancelled. Fortunately, we had many repeat buyers and we spent weeks phoning them, selling from home and delivering rams all over Scotland.

Traditional Suffolk sheep compared to the New Zealand type?

It’s been interesting listening to the buyers who have come to the farm describe why they have chosen our Suffolks. Some say they are new-style Suffolks, while others describe them as old-fashioned – like they used to be 30 years ago.

I believe that I am breeding a type of Suffolk which is neither ‘traditional’ Suffolk with heavy bone and head, but not the other extreme of pure New Zealand Suffolks. We have bred our own style, which is somewhere in-between.

A few years ago, I did buy pure New Zealand semen from top performing flocks in NZ and bred a three-quarter NZ stock ram. Every year I sell a few shearlings with some NZ genetics and they are popular but it is only a very small part of the flock.

We produce naturally fleshy, long, wide Suffolks with great skins with an emphasis on growth rate, conformation and size for both terminal and maternal use. By carefully selecting for these traits in our breeding programme, using performance recording as a tool, most of ewes and all our stock rams are in the top 1% for UK Suffolks for Terminal and Maternal Index.

I believe we must breed what commercial sheep farmers need – easy lambing, vigorous at birth, lambs which are naturally fleshy and which can perform quickly off their mothers off grass. More and more people are recognising our Suffolks as dual purpose – for producing Suffolk cross females and quickly finished wedders.

Most influential person?

Without a doubt my husband, Jim. He has always encouraged and given me confidence in what I am aiming to achieve with my flock. As a practical cattle farmer, he is constantly in touch with the market and its ever-changing needs.

As a woman sheep breeder, producing shearlings and using performance recording to guide my breeding programme has has often been a lonely occupation, but Jim always encouraged me to stick to my goal. This was again proved to be the right decision when at Dingwall ram sales, last weekend, we had a tremendous trade for our 30 shearlings.

Biggest achievement?

Definitely being awarded UK Sheep Innovator of the Year, in 2015, by the Farmers Guardian. It was such a surprise to be shortlisted as a finalist because the other four finalists in the category were seriously stiff opposition.

It was such an honour to be invited to the presentation of awards in Droitwich, just south of Birmingham. I can still feel that sense total disbelief when they announced that I was the winner.

It was like dream come true. It was so encouraging that the judges believed in the merit of my goal for my flock. They said: “The industry needs people like Irene, to be prepared to innovate and to challenge convention and implement new ways of thinking.”

Biggest hurdle?

My biggest problem is always having time for everything I want to do and being a perfectionist makes it even harder. My family and my friends keep telling me I need to slow down, but there are still so many things I want to do.

One particularly challenging period was when I was mother of three teenagers, supporting my busy farmer husband, keeping my flock going, county commissioner and a full-time teacher!

Favourite breed of cattle or sheep?

Aberdeen-Angus cattle and Suffolk sheep! They are both traditional, iconic British breeds that have stood the test of time and, within both breeds, there are breeders who are helping them move with the changing market demands.

It was when we visited Kansas, with Eddie Gillander’s A-A trip that I persuaded Jim to drive the 500 mile round trip to visit Matt Beals – a progressive US Suffolk breeder, who was a big supporter and helped in the export of Essie semen to America.

Main problems in industry?

We are all aware of the stagnating prices of our end products. The expectation of the public of cheap food, combined with the requirements of high ethical standards is a real problem. How Brexit will affect the export market of agricultural produce, especially lamb, is a huge concern. However, I would like to think that during lockdown more people were beginning to appreciate locally produced food.


I am involved with the Church of Scotland and I am Session Clerk, Presbytery Elder and Convenor of the Presbytery Vacancy Procedure Committee, as well as being a member of the Trefoil Guild and our local ‘Women in Agriculture’ group.

I also enjoy riding my lovely Highland pony, Rose, picking up at shoots with my Labrador dogs – Lexi and Keira – and especially spending time with five wonderful grandchildren.

Advice to any female wanting to make a career in agriculture?

Go for it! Start where you can – be enthusiastic, be willing to learn, be reliable and punctual. Take a deep interest in the enterprise you are involved in and take opportunities for responsibility when offered.

It would be the same advice for any young person entering the agricultural industry but sometimes a female lacks confidence, so believe in yourself and your ability to achieve your goals.

Favourite alcoholic beverage?

I do enjoy a gin and tonic at the weekend. I was recently given a bottle of pink gin and I am converted . However, I am partial to a glass of Prosecco at a party – we can only dream of those days again!