Meet the shepherdess smashing farming stereotypes

BY Jack Watkins

1st Jan 2015 Life

Meet the shepherdess smashing farming stereotypes

Little Bo Peep? Hardly. Meet the 20-something shepherdess who’s redefining the modern shepherding profession with her 'solo shepherdess' blog. 

A near death experience

Solo Shepherdess with dog
Jodi’s dog Bess plays a vital role in rounding up the flock

It happened in February last year,” says Jodi Fenwick. “I was driving down a hill when the steering column sheered through as I was turning a corner. I had no steering—and I’ve no idea how I managed to miss all the oncoming traffic—but I ended up spinning and flipping downhill, landing upright facing back up the hill.”

It was an experience from which Jodi was lucky to escape alive. “The rescue services thought they would have to cut me and my brother out of the wreckage, but I was able to walk away from it. But all the discs in my back shifted and squashed my sciatic nerve. I still can’t feel parts of my leg or foot, after two operations. My brother had a couple of fractures, along with cuts and bruising.” 



"I still can’t feel parts of my leg or foot"



The nightmarish episode couldn’t have come at a worse moment, just as Jodi—better known as “The Solo Shepherdess”, after the popular blog she writes on her outsider’s take on raising sheep and building up her own flock—was gearing up for the lambing season. As a measure of her determination, she still carried out lambing on two local farms whose combined flock size amounted to 3,000 ewes. “I like to keep my word,” she states.

As for her own flock, she’s built it up to 60 this year, with young lambs already fattening ahead for Christmas markets. Did she need any help? 

“Oh, no,” says the 27-year-old. “I worked within a team on those other farms, but I always do mine myself.”



Independence is paramount

solo shepherdess with a lamb

Doing for oneself seems to be central to Jodi’s modus operandi. We’re talking in the sitting room of the farmhouse near Battle where she lives with mother Lynne and brother Gary. From the window, the land slopes away on a fine prospect of the High Weald of Sussex at its rustic, undulating, tree-filled prettiest. Of more immediate importance to Jodi, it also overlooks the green pastures—which enable her to keep an eye on her precious animals.

These are headed by Ramsey, a Ryeland ram with a normally teddy-bearish face who currently looks “a bit like ET because he’s just been shorn”, and ewes from an assortment of other breeds—all looking proud of themselves with their recently born lambs at foot. 

It has, admits Jodi, taking a rare moment to settle in a comfy arm-chair, been a hectic lambing season. “I barely got to sleep during it, to be honest. I was up every three or four hours, checking the animals. Whereas larger operations can afford to pay for night lambers to come in, when you have a more modest-sized flock you tend to take it all on yourself. But, frankly, I don’t mind. I’m quite an independent person and I don’t like to ask for help.”

Fortunately, only one lamb was lost. Jodi tube-fed him for several nights with the dam’s colostrum (the ewe’s first milk, which is vital for boosting the lamb’s immune system), as he was too weak to feed from the ewe himself, before he finally died. “I call him Ivan the Great—a big name for a little lamb.”



A "complete passion"

solo shepherdess
The 27-year-old on her smallholding in Battle. “I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else” 

Breaking into farming seems to have been a mix of serendipity and willpower. It all began in Surrey, where she was born. Riding ponies from early childhood, her livery stables were on a farm where the elderly farmer was finding it difficult to maintain his large sheep flock. Jodi began helping him—casually at first, pointing out when she’d noticed a particular sheep was lame, then gradually taking on more duties and assisting at lambing. 

Equine interests remained primary for a while, but by the time they had moved to Battle, the sheep were taking a hold. 

“Mum bought this farm because she had a long-term, as yet unfulfilled, plan of getting into holiday lets using shepherd’s huts,”  says Jodi, explaining how they arrived at the 30-acre unit seven years ago. “She keeps pigs and runs a day-care nursery here, which looks after kids between three months and five years old. And I wanted space to have my own sheep, and for them to be right by me, so I was around if there was a problem.”



"I’m quite an independent person and I don’t like to ask for help"



Having started with pedigree Gotlands, a relatively unusual breed in this country, further experience shepherding on local farms has given her a more market-focused approach. Her current flock includes Suffolks—an immensely handsome sheep that was once the leading commercial breed in the country—plus Texel, Jacob and Black Welsh Mountain crosses. Some ewe lambs brought in from a farm in nearby Robertsbridge have had to be bottle-fed—much to the delight of children attending the day nursery.

Jodi’s enthusiasm for her sheep is infectious. “It’s a complete passion,” she says. “It’s never really going to be a job that’s easy, but it’s always going to be one that’s worthwhile. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else, really. I absolutely adore it.” 

She has an idea to run courses for smallholders or for “people who’d like to keep sheep but have no idea how to start”. There’s no doubt she’d be terrific at this, not least because she radiates the joy to be had in farming and working outdoors.



Smashing stereotypes

solo shepherdess feeds a lamb

It’s fair to say that—in an industry in which females are still few and those from a non-farming background even fewer—Jodi is something of a mold-breaker. There’s a streak of the unconventional about her. Even the foxes behave differently in Jodi’s fields.

“They go and sunbathe in them with the sheep,” she laughs. “I’ve never been able to get a picture because, obviously, they’re off as soon as they realise you’re near, but I’ve often seen a line of four or five sunning themselves out there, with the lambs running around them. It’s quite bizarre.”

She started her blog with the similar idea of inspiring would-be self-starters. It got picked up by an online magazine, The Indie Farmer—a platform for a new breed of producers seeking to explore ways to farm—and now she does a monthly post called “The Country Chronicle”



 “It’s like any industry—you have to have the right conversation skills and personality, the right attitude” 



“That’s not just about sheep, but our kitchen garden, the pigs, and anything I’m building or fixing at the time, from feed troughs to sheds.”

Jodi’s fulfilment is found through the animals and the land. But the workforce on farms is ageing, and she agrees that more could be done to encourage first-time farmers. “A lot of younger people have started to show an interest in agriculture, but they do a course and then struggle to get an opening. The industry is dominated by older people who are set in their ways, and more could be done to help first-timers get tenancies or be given help to purchase or let land.” 

She also can relate to the uneasy feeling of going to markets as “a complete newbie where everyone seems to know everyone else, and you’re standing thinking, I can’t speak because I don’t know anyone, and it feels really uncomfortable”. In the end, though, she says, “It’s like any industry—you have to have the right conversation skills and personality, the right attitude.” 

She attributes her own can-do mentality to her late grandfather. “He was great at finding ways to do things. That’s my mentality. If it doesn’t work one way, try a couple of other ways. Keep trying until it works.”



"I don’t think I’d ever be able to give this up"

solo shepherdess
Jodi gives all her sheep individual care

Farming can be rather solitary, so does she worry about isolation? “No, I absolutely don’t,” she replies emphatically. “I’m not someone who needs company. I’m comfortable with my own. Given the point I’m at with my business, I don’t have time to socialise.

“I have contacts through farming, but my main support is from my mother and brother. And I’m not a girly girl. I’ll wear make-up, but my dress sense isn’t girly. I’d like to start my own Solo Shepherdess clothing range though. In country stores all the women’s stuff is pink, turquoise, tight-fitting or low-cut. I know other girls in the industry who are like me. We just want casual workwear in gentle, subdued colours, especially around stock where the brightness can be unsettling.”

She knows she’s unlikely to achieve riches doing what she’s doing, and jokes that the hours are more five-to-nine than nine-to-five. But she has no intention of letting her flock get too large in search of profits.

“Maybe 200 to 300 sheep at most,” she reckons. “I don’t want to get to the point where I couldn’t look after them and give them all the individual care. I know other farmers that don’t check their sheep for a couple of days, and that’s something I can’t envisage myself doing. Whatever challenges I face, I don’t think I’d ever be able to give this up. Every day I smile just looking at my sheep.”

There are lots of gloomy predictions about the future of British farming, claiming it’s squeezed by imports and the power of the multiples. But while it continues to attract people like Jodi, with her death-defying determination, it’s still clinging onto its soul.


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