Interview: Emma Gray, the country's youngest shepherdess

IT’S rare – if ever – that Emma Gray has a night out on the town.

Shepherdess Emma Gray
Shepherdess Emma Gray

IT’S rare – if ever – that Emma Gray has a night out on the town. For a start, no taxi would ever be able to manoeuvre the three-mile, pothole-ridden dirt track which takes you to the 25-year-old’s front door.

It’s a winding, treacherous road from start to finish, which would test the skills and push the stress limits of any seasoned driver.

And, as Emma tells me wisely: “You really need a 4x4 to get here.”

The term ‘off the beaten track’ springs to mind.

Yet the more I hear, it would almost be appropriate to describe her desolate dwelling as virtually ‘off the map’.

Hidden deep in the northernmost fringe of the county’s rural heart, just a stone’s throw from the Scottish Borders and backing onto Harwood Forest, is a ramshackle farmhouse Emma calls her home.

The closest contact she has to civilisation is a small hamlet of half a dozen houses smugly sign-posting the start of the truly tumultuous journey to Fallowlees Farm, positioned as if to warn motorists they’ve just reached the world’s end.

And if Emma ever does manage to find a thrill-seeking cabbie ready to put his life on the line for a hefty fare, she’s then got the added problem of finding a sheep-sitter for the night, although apparently they’re few and far between these days.

“I don’t go out very often,” Emma confides.

“If I want to go out for a drink in Morpeth or Newcastle, I have to find somewhere to stay overnight. It would just be impossible for me to get back home.”

Being isolated in the Northumbrian wilderness is something Emma has become accustomed to since moving into the secluded building two and a half years ago.

But she’s fallen head over heels in love with her remote and out of reach existence and wouldn’t change it for the world, despite the many downfalls that comes with it.

“The first winter I moved in here was just awful,” Emma admits.

“The water pipes froze solid for about a week during a really, really bad cold spell and I also got snowed in for five days. But last winter wasn’t so bad. Thankfully, it was kind to me. I don’t know what I would have done if it had have been so harsh again.”

Surviving the elements is only one aspect of living and working in such a deserted place.

Significantly distanced from any urban sprawl, her lifestyle seems such a far cry different to that of her contemporaries, who could still very well be spilling from city centre nightspots at around the same time Emma’s alarm clock starts to sound each day.

“At the moment I have to get up at 5am because it’s lambing season,” she says with a cringe.

“It’s very early starts and late finishes. People often ask me what a ‘normal’ day involves, but in farming there doesn’t seem to be a typical day at all, right throughout the year.

“My life revolves around sheep and dogs and pretty much my job is to keep the sheep alive and healthy, and I need the dogs to do that. So my time is split 50-50 between them. But I love it and ideally in the future, I would like to have a big farm with 1,000 sheep. That’s my dream. ”

It’s also partly due to the gruelling daily grind of running her own sheep farm, that Emma often resigns herself to staying in.

That, and the impossible task of leaving the 100-acre National Trust property, for which she is responsible for managing.

Instead, she spends her evenings either putting her feet up after an exhaustingly long day of lambing, or curling up with her 10 collies.

Last summer however, she found the time to put pen to paper in a bid to document her extraordinary lifestyle.

“It’s really just all about my first year at Fallowlees,” she says.

“From leaving my fiance to getting the farm, which was a huge step and really, it just follows all of the ups and downs I’ve had along the way because it’s been a big struggle, emotionally and financially.

“My dogs are a huge feature because they are such a big part of my life and have kept me sane all the way through, even when things were going pear shaped.

“They have been my rocks. My first lambing season the weather was hideous and my generator broke down, which always seemed to happen at the weekend when I could never get anyone out to fix it.

“At one point there was plumes of smoke coming out of the generator house and it still sounds like a bag of hammers. It was just miserable.

“But the book has got a happy ending,” she adds reassuringly.

Her autobiography, One Girl and Her Dogs; Life, Love and Lambing in the Middle of Nowhere, retells the trials and tribulations of her first year at Fallowlees.

Emma’s stark recollections make for a heart-rendering read of her first lonesome 12 months on the farm.

Sprinkled with her own sharp wit and endearing sense of dry humour, Emma’s unfaltering enthusiasm for farm life shines through page after page.

Although the subject of sheep farming in itself may not appeal to the masses, the book is much more a tale about one woman’s undying spirit and determination to succeed against all of the odds - and elements.

But it is the bleak and often grim reality of coping with it all alone – and the bluntness with which Emma conveys her hope of one day meeting Mr Right “in the middle of nowhere”, which should encapsulate and inspire anyone looking for love.

As cupid’s arrow shoots through the blackest of night skies over Emma’s beautiful, albeit rundown and ill-equipped farmhouse, her dream of finding a soulmate to share her growing flock of sheep with, finally looks set to come true.

In a ‘will-she, won’t she’ find the man of dreams dilemma, Emma’s emotional tug-of-war tale is truly unique and uplifting.

“It wasn’t difficult for me to write at all,” she says.

“I really looked forward to spending the evenings writing and I just wrote about exactly what had happened. It’s an honest account of what I thought and felt at the time.”

Aged 23, Emma became the youngest shepherdess in the country when she took on the farm.

At the time, she had moved back into her childhood bedroom on her parents home, Muirfield Farm, in the Borders, after calling off an engagement with her past love of four years.

She applied to rent the farm from the National Trust after seeing an advert in The Journal.

And since then, says she hasn’t looked back for a second and believes she has found her place in the world.

“The road still isn’t ideal, but I feel that I’m much better adapted to deal with everything now.

“And I’ve also got a windmill now too,” she says excitedly.

The turbine was installed one year ago and has made a huge difference to Emma’s life.

Having endured countless days without electricity or hot water, the generator is now her back up power supply, rather than her main one, and slowly but surely, Emma has found her feet in the farming world.

Despite everything the past two years have thrown at her though, Emma remains as passionate and determined as she did on her first day at Fallowlees.

“Getting the farm has been the biggest achievement of my life so far and the recognition my dogs have gotten me is amazing. Just recently, Roy qualified to represent England at the National Sheep Dog Trials, which was amazing.”

When Emma was 18, she spent six months in New Zealand working on a pig farm, but became homesick.

“I went on my own and it was also the first time I’d ever stepped onto a plane,” she says with confidence.

And although she’s fiercely independent, Emma’s reclusive lifestyle is also the driving force behind her success in the sheep dog circuit – her saving grace from complete solitude.

“I make quite a bit of effort to get out and about to sheep dog trials and shows on a weekend, which is my real passion and it’s where I can meet people, because it’s quite easy to get stuck in a rut.

“Literally no one comes to visit me. I don’t think any of my friends have been here. They just wreck their cars. Unless you have a 4x4 it’s useless.

“So yes, it has sometimes been lonely here. I don’t think there’s a person out there who wouldn’t have felt that. But you can be just as lonely living in a townhouse as where I am.

“But my heart is definitely in Northumberland and the Borders and I’ve never regretted any of it, not even for a second.”

Emma’s book, One Girl and her Dogs: Life, Love and Lambing in the Middle of Nowhere, published by Sphere, is on sale from tomorrow for £7.99 in Waterstones, WH Smith and online at Amazon.

She will be signing copies at Waterstones, in Morpeth, on Saturday April 28 from 2pm.

 

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