Born and brought up as a farmer’s daughter with a passion for all thing’s agriculture, Shona Duncan is doing it for the girls and proving that women have a concrete future in the world of farming.

Here she spoke with Kathryn Dick:

What is your background in agriculture?

I was born and brought up at Angus Stepp, near Kippen, which was a small mixed farm. I was very keen on farming from an early age. I was always up early on market mornings to help my dad round up sheep in the summer months to help sell fat lambs at Kildean.

My father, however, thought farming was no real place for a girl and I was not encouraged to pursue a career in agriculture.

So, in 1988, I went to Edinburgh University to study zoology. My main interest being in animal behaviour. However, although I had romantic notions about studying animal behaviour in far flung places, I quickly realised that with a degree in zoology I was much more likely to end up counting grey geese in the Outer Isles than gorillas in the mist.

After first year at uni, I transferred to study agriculture (animal science) which was much more my scene, plus the social life was much, much better. I was, like most agricultural students, home pretty much every weekend, helping dad on the farm.

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While in Edinburgh, I met my now husband, Bruce Duncan, who was there studying for an HND in agriculture. With hindsight, an HND in agriculture would have been a better option for me as I’m a practical person and love getting my hands dirty.

After finishing uni, I worked part time at Balafark, near Fintry, for a year, while still helping dad at home. My father struggled with his mental health and that, topped with the financial pressures of running such a small farm, resulted in the family farm being sold and my parents moved to Kippen.

What's your job and what does it entail?

I now work full time in partnership with my husband, Bruce and his family. We’ve lived at Lands of Drumhead, near Drymen, since just after we got married and have brought up our four children here.

I’ve always had more interest in sheep than cattle and now pretty much manage the flock of just over 1000 breeding ewes that we run at the two farms, while Bruce manages the cattle. We don’t employ anyone full time and since we also run a herd of 165 native-bred beef sucklers, we tend to be pretty busy. However, with our now grown up kids snapping at our heels, our workload is slowly easing.

We run about 300 Blackface ewes that were originally bred at our hill farm, Inveruglas, which is a separate family farming business. They come to us as cast ewes and we now put them to an Aberfield tup, producing a Mule type which make up most of the flock at Blairfad.

We then cross them with a Texel tup to produce a ewe which produces a lovely finished lamb when crossed with a Texel/Beltex. Last year, we sold 400 fat lambs through both markets at Stirling and at the moment the rest go store, other than the 250 or so female replacements we keep every year.

However, we are now looking at diversifying the farm to safeguard our future and in the last 12 months have sold just short of 100 of our own sheep butchered direct from the farm. We have them butchered in nearby Paisley, by John Scott Meats, and they come straight back to the farm. This includes not only our home grown lamb but also hoggets and mutton, which we are increasingly looking to sell direct to the consumer.

The hogget and mutton are proving almost as popular as the lamb as folk just can’t find it where they normally shop. What doesn’t get sold direct from the farm is sold online via online farmers markets Neighbourfood in Balfron and Stirling and The Great British Food Hub in Milngavie, Stirling and Bridge of Allan.

We also plan to introduce self-catering accommodation at two of our farms and, in June last year, launched our brand ‘Duncan Family Farms’ to market our business on social media.

What aspects of farming alongside your family do you love most?

I love working outdoors with animals, especially the sheep and my dogs. I like being my own boss and working from home. I can’t imagine ever having to commute to work every day.

I also really enjoy seeing the next generation taking a genuine interest in the farm and farming life.

Favourite agricultural show?

My favourite has to be Gargunnock, which has always been my local show. We got married on Gargunnock show day, in 1993, and I even managed to pop in on the way home from the hairdressers in Stirling, very briefly.

That has to be followed very closely by Islay Show, which we’ve attended for the last two years after I was asked to judge the light horse section, in 2018. We were planning on going again this year until it was cancelled due to Covid-19. However, our rooms and ferry are still booked so we're hoping to get away for a few days if at all possible.

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Best piece of advice I’d give my younger self:

Do what your gut instinct tells you to do and don’t be persuaded otherwise. Don’t let being a female hold you back.

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

Producing livestock that I’m proud of – especially our lambs. Whether it's fat or store lambs to sell or breeding female replacements to keep, I do get great pleasure in producing livestock that I’m proud of.

Over the years we’ve worked hard to improve our end products but I’m also very aware that there is always room for improvement.

Biggest achievement to date?

I think actually being recognised as a farmer is probably my biggest achievement to date.

What’s your favourite breed of cattle and sheep and why?

My favourite breed of sheep has to be a Border Leicester, although I’ve never had one. I just love their ears. At home I really enjoy working with our Texel cross ewes – they are motherly, milky and on the whole easy to work with.

With cattle, it has to be Blue-greys. Although we don’t have any of them currently, we do have quite a few grey Shorthorn cross Angus cows. I like them for their hardiness and love their colour.

The main problems in the industry?

In my opinion, one of the main problems in agriculture is that we are still allowing imports of foreign meat.

I really struggle to see how we, as a country, can insist on our farmers adhering to some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and then allowing our super market shelves to be filled with foreign produce from countries where we have no control over the standards that their animals are subjected to.

This and a complete lack of understanding by the consumers in Britain, means that most shoppers are blind to the fact that what they are seeing in our fields and what they are often buying from the shelves, are two completely different things – especially if they are looking for the cheapest option.

I think there is a whole generation or more that do not understand how food is produced and there needs to be more of a connection between animal production and food and believe that education of school age children is key.

The way forward for Scottish agriculture?

I think we have a great 'Scottish' brand and it needs to be promoted – not only worldwide but also here in every classroom. I’m very passionate about promoting our Scottish produce. If we can’t market it properly here, then what hope have we got with the rest of the world.

I think more farms are going to diversify. It’s a sad fact but think it’s becoming necessary to guarantee a future in farming with either less or no subsidies. Having another income source has to be a top priority.

Outwith farming, are you involved in any other organisations?

I was recently light horse secretary/convenor for Drymen Show for six years and also stood on the committee for our local Pony Club for several years, as well as the Scottish Tetrathlon committee. All of those voluntary roles were connected with activities that my children were involved with, but I gave all of those up a couple of years ago to allow me the time to concentrate on diversifying the farm.

With diversification in mind, I recently got involved with the Scottish Enterprise-funded agri-tourism monitor farm project, which is great and has provided me with a fantastic network of support and also friendship.

I’ve also recently got involved with setting up Forth Valley Food and Drink – a network which will hopefully help promote food and drink businesses in our local area and beyond.

Any hobbies?

I was heavily involved with Pony Club for the last 15 years and travelled the length and breadth of the country with our three girls, competing in a number of disciplines. Now that the girls have out-grown pony club, I still like to dabble with horses and we’ve recently purchased an unbroken, three-year-old over height Connemara that we’ll back and will either keep or sell on.

Although I rarely get the chance to ride these days, I do enjoy working with horses. Other than that, I don’t really have a lot of time for hobbies other than socialising with friends and family.

Favourite alcoholic beverage?

A nice Scottish gin with tonic and ice.