Josephine Holbrook

A day in the life of… Josephine Holbrook

Life often takes unexpected turns and for Josephine Holbrook, age 25, she had her life mapped out when she finished her veterinary degree two years ago, she had two job offers on the table and she was ready to take on the challenge of being a farm animal vet.

However, the curveball which knocked her onto this new path came in the shape of the news that she was expecting her first child. The hours of a newly qualified vet were not going to fit in with the hours of a new born child and so Josephine decided that she needed to have a rethink.

I meet her as the seasons are changing into their autumn colours and she is now shepherdess to 1400 sheep, made up of Scottish Blackface and two Bleu du Maine tups, and a herd of Highland cattle.

She is doing an equally brilliant job of looking after the sheep and bringing up her little partner in crime, Ruairidh, who is now 17-months-old. She talks to us about what may be a typical day, however, as she has found out, sheep are unpredictable, which means each day is different and full of challenges.

The last year has been a learning curve as steep as the hill that the sheep graze on in front of her pristine little cottage which sits just outside West Linton. Josephine says: “I had no experience of being a shepherd, I heard about the job through a friend and I went for an interview with a piece of A4 paper with everything I knew about sheep on it. However, my employers Elaine and Gavin xxx of Baddingsgill Farm have been so supportive with me.”

I ask how she manages this role with a toddler at her heel. “I don’t think I could do this job with any other child, as Ruairidh is just so chilled. He is happy to do anything you are doing, whether it’s in the snow feeding cows or in the pens dosing sheep he just chats away to you. If the weather is really appalling I can drop him off down at the farm office and he potters around down there, but most of the time he is with me.

“My job description is looking after the sheep, and I’ve been learning what that means. A year ago I couldn’t have picked out any of the sheep as belonging to this farm, and I’ve taken the time to find out what we have, what our strengths are and how best to manage the flock.

“ON a normal day it is a 6.20am wake-up call from Ruairidh, then we have breakfast. I go around and feed the tups and check the lambs that we have brought in, I have brought some in as I’m weaning them, I’m moving them between our poorer fields until they are dried off. We’ve got the bullocks and our five Highland cows in as well.

“Checking them brings up its own issues. I noticed a few lame ones recently that I need to deal with and the tups are a bit scoury so I need to readjust their rations, I don’t think its worms. I have a microscope here so I can check that out. I can’t do any of the lab work unfortunately, much as I would love to.

“In general, Ruairidh just come along for the ride, he fits in with my day. It’s literally all he knows, he is so happy and fearless. He calls out ‘Moo’ when I’m feeding the cows and babbles and sings when he is on the quad with me. I’ve got three dogs here too. I’ve got Roo which is my working collie. Benjy, my pet collie, and I’ve got little Tigger, which is hopefully going to help Roo as he is lacking a little confidence. I didn’t have any working dogs when I started, so in February I started working Roo and he has picked it up brilliantly.

“In the fields I couldn’t be without him now. When I started I didn’t have a quad and I didn’t have a dog and I was doing it all with a baby strapped to my front. Some days I was thinking, this is the worst job ever. Then I started working Roo, and I got immense satisfaction with having that team work and seeing him progress.

“The more I do with him the more confidence he gains, but the work is sporadic, I might have two weeks of solid sheep work, then other days I’ll just be checking them. I’m hoping that Tigger will be more confident, he is so smart, I love watching him work out problems.

“My employers are just the best. Gavin and Elaine also run a timber company called Treeline from the farm and there is shooting on the estate, and we have a few other ideas to add value to the sheep that we are working on too. Elaine seems to be happy for me to do anything. Gavin needs to have a proposal put to him before he agrees. He wants to know that I have thought any new project through which is fair enough.

“Each day is different for me, but in the main I’m trying to familiarise myself with the flock and their movements as much as possible. Being a vet I like to base my decisions on data I’ve collected, so I’m running a few trials in my spare time. I’m questioning everything we do and why we do it, at vet school we were taught the basics of sheep husbandry, but when it comes to things like bolusing, I’m asking why? We were told the flock had selenium deficiency, I ran the bloods last year at lambing time when the bolus would still be working and the bloods came back fine.

“It costs around £1 a head to bolus, so this year I’ve looked at the five hefts and I’ve taken 50 animals from each heft and put 20 with Cosecure, 20 with Ovitrates(check?) and 10 with none and I’m monitoring everything about them. Condition, weight, colostrum, lambing weight and growth and what I had wanted to do was blood check them at the beginning, but that was going to cost too much unfortunately. If I could do my own lab work I would. I think my vet experience makes me think in a different way about it. It’s good to question things.

“The other thing I’m working on over the last few months is to create a programme which will run alongside our stick reader. It will allow me to track things like sheep that are coming in on each gather, sheep that are wandering, the ones that are performing, monitoring those that are thin etc. It will give me a better idea of how the flock is doing. It means I can check how each heft is performing.”

Drawing breath, I ask Josephine if she realises how analytical she is. “Possibly”, she laughs. “It’s a way of monitoring everything. When I arrived I thought, “How hard can it be to look after 1400 sheep?

“Then I was presented with all these sheep and I was like, holy moly! What is going on here? I can’t change stuff unless I understood exactly what was going on. For example. One side of the hill is all grass, the other side is all heather. The heather side sheep finish their lambs much faster. I think it is down to the fact that when they are pregnant over winter, but there are new shoots for them to eat, while the grass side has nothing new to eat.

“On the heather side the lambs hit the ground running as the ewes are better. Also I notice that the sheep are a different size and shape on each heft, so I’m thinking of using different tups to try to complement the size of the lambs we produce.”

It’s a learning process and it hasn’t been all plain sailing. Josephine continues: “I made a very amateur mistake last year, I put the rams out without any marks to identify them as ours. That had to be rectified. I got them in and put a neat blue keel mark between their shoulders to tell which is ours. I was busy in the pens tagging and marking them and not paying attention to the ones I had done. It must have upset the hierarchy, as they spent the next 20 minutes bashing into each other and mounting each other, which meant they rubbed the blue mark all over themselves. The tups were blue all over!” She shows me the photos of the blue sheep on her phone and laughing at what a sight they looked.

“The other thing I did was the turnips saga. I asked Gavin whether we could buy turnips. I had read that they can increase milk productivity, but we had never used them here before. He agreed to give it a go, so I ordered 20 tonnes of turnips, do you know how many turnips are in 20 tonnes? When they arrived, the only place the turnips could go was in the car park, it was buried under 20 tonnes of turnips. And the smell, oh, they smelled awful.

“I was sure the sheep would love them. But they showed less than zero interest. They actually ran away from them when we put them in the field. Nothing touched them for the first week. I was panicking. Then over the next two weeks they started nibbling at them, then we couldn’t get them out fast enough. My days were spent lugging turnips to them.

“They abandoned everything else except the turnips. We ordered another 10 tonnes. I caught the first 20 ewes that lambed and stripped the colostrum off them after their lambs were full and I filled my freezer. Over the course of lambing I only had 15 sheep that didn’t have milk for their lambs.

“Apart from my early disasters I’m finding a routine of sorts now. I’m trying to improve the quality of the stock. Following on from the previous shepherd’s work. Our sheep are all shapes and sizes, we don’t have a type. I think our sheep are brilliant. What they manage to do on that hill with barely any input from anyone and still produce lambs really impresses me. They are little work horses and it makes me sad when they go through market and they don’t make much money. I’ve brought in a few tup lambs from Lurg Blackies, to improve the sheep that I like. I’ll select a few and put them to these tups. I’ll create a nucleus flock and work out from them, to try to create much more of a type that I like.

“The one thing I have found out throughout all this experience is that you can do everything in your power to look after sheep as well as possible, and they will still die. I see textbook symptoms of diseases, and I think: “I can fix this.” And before you know it they are dead.

Josephine lives with Ruaridh in her little cottage with the dogs, it’s quite remote and I ask whether she is ever lonely. “No, I love living here. Everyone was apprehensive that I would be lonely, but I really love it. Every time I go away I can’t sleep as I feel claustrophobic.

“I don’t have a routine, if the weather is crap we do a different thing, some days Ruaridh is really active and by early evening he wants to go to bed, or he plays with his toys, I knit while he plays with the dogs then we go to bed.

“My days are mapped around the weather, my stomach or my son’s nappy. To add to this juggling act I’ve got three hens and a cockerel, who love to follow Ruaridh around and snatch pancakes from his fingers while he is busy smearing syrup onto his toy ladybird he usually zooms around on.

“I try to keep the garden tidy, do a little planting, and then watch as the dogs go around behind me digging them up again. Then Ruaridh goes round after the dogs trying to replant while the chickens follow him gobbling up everything he has unearthed and dust bathing in the ensuing chaos. By now Ruaridh is usually on his third oufit of the day.

“In the future when Ruaridh goes to nursery I hope to go back to veterinary work part time, I can juggle shepherding with vet work. Working at Baddingsgill Farm has brought up lots of opportunities and we have just launched a meatbox business. I was depressed by how little our Blackie lambs made, so I had a think and got together with my employers and we have created a business selling lamb boxes.

“ I’ve kept 80 sheep back which I hope will see us through to Easter, which we are selling as whole or half lambs. They go to Shotts abattoir and then Forsyths do the butchering for us, turning them into sausages and burgers. The half boxes cost £70 and a full lamb cost £125. We are pleased with the initial success, but it is early days and we hope to expand the business further. I was designing posters for them this morning, actually.

“Another little project that has taken off is having our wool turned into yarn. My friends mum has started a little business called Lifelong Yarns, she takes our Blackface fleeces and has them mixed with Shetland wool and creates the most beautiful balls of wool. She is selling it and is taking it to Edinburgh Yarn Festival. I’ve knitted Ruaridh some lovely little jumpers using our own wool, that is such a treat to be able to say.

“I love knitting, I grew up with no TV, and did consider buying one for here, but didn’t see the point, so in the evening I sit in front of the fire knitting. I’ve watched Ruairidh pick up other people’s remote controls and hold it like a phone as he has no idea what it is. It’s hilarious.”

Having spent the day in the company of 17-month-old Ruairidh, it’s safe to say he is a very happy and contented child. Trying to pull on his own little boots to go out and help mum do her chores on the quad bike. He sings and shouts at the top of his voice when he is on the quad, Josephine says she can’t wait to hear what it is he is actually saying when more words start to come. She has a no Ruaridh on the hill rule, as she finds that using the quad on the hill can be quite dangerous, so she has a child swap routine worked out with her employer’s son and daughter, where they each take each other’s children for a couple of mornings a week, which gives Josephine some free time to deal with the things that she can’t do with Ruaridh in tow.

“I do think about what my life would have been like if I hadn’t become pregnant, and I have no regrets whatsoever. At the end of the day when an exhausted Ruaridh is squeaky clean and fast asleep in his bed, I sit on the back doorstep with a cup of cocoa and a dog sitting at either side and listen to the oyster catchers and curlews and the bleating lambs particularly in the springtime, as I watch the sky darken. I shut up the hens, rinse my cup, tidy away Ruaridh’s toys, turn a blind eye to the dogs asleep with their legs in the air on the sofa and go to bed myself. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.”


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