The sound of baaing newborns can be heard as I approach the barn where shepherdess Zoe Colville farms in Kent. ‘Oh my God, it’s so amazing to see another human!’ she tells me enthusiastically.
By the time I’m inside sitting on a hay bale, the ridiculously cute lambs are making a deafening din as they fight for Zoe’s attention, desperate to be picked out of their pen and cuddled.
With her long, strawberry-blonde hair pulled back and her overalls caked in mud, she apologises for her unkempt appearance and explains she’s been up all night helping a ewe deliver triplets.
During lambing season, Zoe lives next to the barn in a rickety 15 ft caravan with her partner and fellow farmer Kriss Woodhead, so they can be on call 24/7. ‘I’m low-maintenance. Just as well, eh?’ she laughs. The rest of the time they live with Kriss’s mother a few miles from the farm.
It’s all a far cry from the days when Zoe used to work as a hairdresser in London. By day, she’d be doing bobs and balayage, and by night she’d hit the town to down cocktails in fashionable East London bars.
Shepherdess Zoe Colville (pictured), who during lambing season, lives next to the barn in a rickety 15 ft caravan with her partner and fellow farmer Kriss Woodhead in Kent
Our Yorkshire Farm, about the life of the Yorkshire shepherdess Amanda Owen (pictured) and her family is Channel 5’s highest rated factual programme, with nearly four million viewers
Thirty-year-old Zoe is one of a new breed of shepherdess blazing a trail across social media, challenging outdated ideas about the job and capturing the public’s imagination along the way.
Last month, there were two books by shepherdesses on the Sunday Times bestseller list. (The first, The Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen, has been there for eight weeks; the other, Call Me Red, is by Hannah Jackson). A third shepherdess, Emma Gray, has just released her second book.
Our Yorkshire Farm, about the life of the Yorkshire shepherdess Amanda Owen and her family is Channel 5’s highest rated factual programme, with nearly four million viewers. It’s clear the UK has developed a soft spot for shepherdesses. In fact, it was Amanda who inspired Zoe to follow in her footsteps.
‘I read her books and was so impressed by her,’ she tells me. ‘She paved the way for women like me and proved that you can lug a 50-kilo sheep around and still be feminine; you don’t have to let yourself go.’
Zoe calls herself The Chief Shepherdess, a nickname that started as a joke — Kriss’s cheeky dig at his rather clueless girlfriend. While he was from a farming family, she was completely new to it when they decided, five years ago, to quit their lives in London (Kriss was working as a plumber) and make a living from the land.
‘I had bleached blonde hair, wore bright red lipstick and totally inappropriate hipster clothing when I started helping Kriss. He’d say: “Come on then, Chief Shepherdess,” as a joke because I was so clueless.’
Three years ago, they took up a tenancy on an 80-acre farm just outside Maidstone, Kent. Their 600 sheep are kept at several grazing spots around the county.
Emma Gray (pictured) and her husband Ewan, a former firefighter-turned-farmer, have a two-year-old son, Len, and have recently moved to the Isle of Bute to farm a staggering 680 acres
On the day I visit, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, pygmy goats are jumping around the barn and it all feels like a scene straight out of All Creatures Great And Small.
‘I love it,’ says Zoe. ‘The farmer stereotype — an old boy in a checked shirt — is changing, and it’s exciting to be a part of that.
‘But there’s the romantic idea, and then there’s the reality. It’s such a tough life; I mean really hardcore and mentally draining, especially when it’s just the two of you. It’s also very hard to make a living.’
Last year, they opened their farm shop, The Little Farm Fridge, selling meat direct to the public to try to boost their income, with enterprising Zoe teaching herself to butcher from a YouTube video. The venture has proved a roaring success.
She has an endorsement deal with Muck Boots via her Instagram account (with 26,000 followers), which brings in more money.
‘I wear them anyway, so it made sense,’ she says.
‘I turn down most offers because I’m not going to sell my soul to flog something I don’t believe in. My Instagram is about showing the gritty reality of farming life, not becoming an influencer.’ However, Zoe’s followers are so taken with her style that she’s regularly asked where her clothes come from and what beauty products she uses on her glowing skin.
She has a monthly column in local lifestyle magazine The Wealden Times and is in talks about an ‘exciting’ book and TV project for later in the year.
Despite the growing numbers of women working in agriculture (today there are 25,000 women running farms), she still feels it’s a sexist and male-dominated industry.
Twenty-eight-year-old Hannah Jackson (pictured), known as The Red Shepherdess, has experienced sexism and resentment from the farming old school, as well as unpleasant trolling online
The first time she went to a livestock market, one farmer joked that she must have got lost on the way to the nearby Bluewater shopping mall. Another mocked her denim cuts-offs and fake tan.
‘How dare they?’ she says now, clearly still smarting. ‘I was there to sell calves that I had hand-reared. And my tan was real, from working outside all year. I was the only female there and I felt so humiliated.
‘For a while, I used to pull my hair back so they wouldn’t think I’m some dolly bird. Now I don’t care — they can think what they like. I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved.’
Twenty-eight-year-old Hannah Jackson, known as The Red Shepherdess, has experienced similar sexism and resentment from the farming old school, as well as unpleasant trolling online.
‘I get abuse from a very small group of farmers who took a dislike to me from the minute I came onto the scene,’ she says. ‘I progressed quite quickly in the industry and they didn’t like it. I think it’s just jealousy.
‘There’s been some online trolling, too, but I’ve learnt to not let it bother me. Overall, the community is brilliantly supportive.’
Her book, Call Me Red, details her journey from ‘townie’ (she was raised in Liverpool) to Cumbrian shepherdess. She firmly believes an incident that occurred while on holiday in the Lake District was fateful. Out of nowhere, a sheep appeared and gave birth right in front of her on a path, leaving her mesmerised with wonder.
‘It flicked a switch in my head, and suddenly working as a shepherd was all I could think about,’ says Hannah, who was then a student, planning to work in marine biology.
‘I knew I had a decision to make: go with it, and throw everything at it; or go back to my life on The Wirral.’
Feisty and adventurous, it was always going to be option one for Hannah. She decided to get hands-on experience by working with a farmer for nine months, toiling for bed and board only.
Not all shepherdesses are young flockstars with thousands of Instagram followers. Katy Cropper (pictured) is 60 and has been doing the job for nearly four decades
It’s now eight years since Hannah started to farm — she was just 20 years old then — and she laughs at how naive she was in the early days, recalling how she once tried to round up sheep by calling them in the same way you would a dog.
‘I was going “Here boy!”, and the farmer I was working with just said: “That’s not going to work, love.”
‘I was red-haired, female, a Scouser and had never set foot on a farm, so I had to change people’s perceptions and prove I wasn’t a five-minute wonder.
‘It took a long time to change attitudes — and so it should. People need to see you graft and get that you’re in it for the long haul.’
With financial help from her family, in 2014 she bought the 85-acre Cumbrian farm where she now has 250 sheep and lives and works in partnership with her fiance Danny, a farrier by trade. The wedding is set for September, and her 65,000 Instagram followers have watched their relationship unfold every step of the way.
When not lambing her own ewes, Hannah does contract shepherding all over the country. Prior to the pandemic, she did a six-week stint in Australia, shepherding 30,000 sheep.
She has her own range of Red branded merchandise, including hats, hoodies and T-shirts, which she sells through her website. And she was such a hit when she joined Countryfile as a guest presenter earlier this year that viewers urged the show to let her join full-time.
Like Zoe, she knew she had to diversify if she was going to survive. ‘Straightforward farming will never support us,’ she says. ‘You don’t come into this industry to be a millionaire.
‘What I have is the beauty of being outside and the connection with the animals. It’s a richness of a different kind.’
Hannah is proud to be doing her bit to promote women working in agriculture. ‘Women have always been farmers but they’ve been pushed into the background. Social media has helped change that. I love my job and have never once thought about quitting. Even in the snow, wind and rain, I just stand there and think there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.’
‘Lonely’ no more: Emma Gray and husband Ewan. My Farming Life, by Emma Gray (Sphere, £16.99), is out now in hardback, audio and ebook
Not all shepherdesses are young flockstars with thousands of Instagram followers. Katy Cropper is 60 and has been doing the job for nearly four decades. When I say that must make her one of the original shepherdesses, she fires back with. ‘No, I was the original shepherdess!
‘There were a handful of us when I started out at 20. The men liked to keep us out of the game. They still do. It’s a bloody sexist industry. Men still think they rule the roost, same as anywhere.’
Katy made history in 1990 when she became the first female winner of One Man And His Dog (the hugely popular BBC TV series). She followed that up in 2011 when she became the first and only woman to win the English National Doubles sheepdog trials.
Katy has a Facebook page but she steers clear of Instagram.
‘I have worked my a**e off all my life. I’m a good sheepdog trainer. I’m a good shepherd. Some are very good at marketing.’
Based in Cumbria on a farm she bought ten years ago, Katy shepherds for other farms and breeds Scottish blackface sheep. However, her passion is for breeding and training sheepdogs.
Lately, she’s diversified to general dog obedience training — a move that followed a boom in puppy ownership during lockdown, with many families struggling to cope with their new pets.
With typical brusque humour, Katy says she relished lockdown. ‘I’ve become old and grumpy: I didn’t see anyone, and I loved it.
‘I live in a lovely part of the world. I can get to the shops. I never run out of loo roll or red wine, so what more do you need? I’ve got my dogs [ten of them]: they’re my right-hand men.’
When it comes to two-legged men, Katy is less enthusiastic. She’s been married four times and has a daughter, Henrietta, 18 (the result of a fling with a married man), who will soon start studying medicine at Exeter University.
‘I don’t want any more men,’ she says. ‘I’ve tried Tinder but they are all so boring. No personality, no character. No thanks.’
Tinder worked just fine for Katy’s friend Emma Gray. It was via the dating app that she met husband Ewan, a former firefighter-turned-farmer. They have a two-year-old son, Len, and have recently moved to the Isle of Bute to farm a staggering 680 acres.
However, it was a broken heart that first led Emma into shepherding. Dumped by her fiance, Dan, she took over the tenancy of remote Fallowlees Farm in Northumberland 12 years ago when she was just 23. Alone, and in the middle of nowhere, she became known as ‘the lonely shepherdess’.
‘Dan and I lived together, so when we split I was homeless,’ she tells me. ‘The tenancy for Fallowlees came up and seemed the answer to all my problems. It was me running away, but it was also what I needed to do to heal.
‘There were some dark times when I first lived there. It was a ramshackle house with no electric or mains water — a complete baptism of fire. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And it has.’
Emma, 35, lived alone for five years before meeting Ewan. She published her story, One Girl And Her Dogs, nine years ago. The follow up book, My Farming Life, has just been released.
She believes that people re-evaluating their lives during lockdown is one reason for our current fascination with shepherdesses.
‘People are thinking more about going back to basics and living off the land, even if that’s just keeping a few chickens and having a vegetable patch at home.
‘It’s one of the positives to come out of lockdown.’
When we chat, Emma is halfway through lambing season. ‘We outdoor lamb, and probably 90 per cent are fine and have no need of intervention.
‘But you develop an eye for spotting a ewe that might be in trouble. When that happens, me and the dogs will catch her up and sort the problem — and that’s pretty much my entire job for three solid weeks, dawn till dusk!’
Forced together 24/7, many relationships were tested during lockdown, but for Emma and Ewan it’s their daily existence.
‘Oh, we fall out a lot,’ she says. ‘But we know never to take anything to heart. We don’t sulk. We get over it and move on. Some mornings we just apologise before we even start work. It saves time.’
Baby Len now has the sort of free-range childhood you read about in storybooks. But when he was born, Emma struggled to adjust to motherhood.
‘I had deep-rooted anxiety after having the baby,’ she reveals. ‘Life is always on a knife edge on a farm, and yet when I had Len I was so worried. I’d constantly wake up to check he was still alive.
‘I tried not to show anyone I was struggling because I was afraid he might get taken away. I don’t know if it was postnatal depression because I never sought help. Now he is the happiest, loveliest lad and brings us such joy.’
The work may be back-breaking but it’s opened up new opportunities for Emma, who has 26,000 followers on Instagram. She took part in TV reality show Flockstars, where she trained dancer Brendan Cole to become a shepherd.
She has featured in the BBC2 series This Farming Life, where she was such a hit with viewers that a film crew recently followed her and Ewan on their move to Bute. She’s also made appearances on Countryfile and The Alan Titchmarsh Show.
When it comes to the other shepherdesses, Emma is proud that they have each other’s backs. ‘We all speak to each other, but we don’t really get together. Hannah has two of my pups, and it’s been lovely to see Zoe’s journey and I’m good friends with Katy. There are very few people who understand the lifestyle, so it’s good to have the support network. And if we attract more women to the job, then what an achievement.’
Call Me Red, by Hannah Jackson (Ebury Press, £16.99), and My Farming Life, by Emma Gray (Sphere, £16.99), are both out now in hardback, audio and ebook.