In Conversation with Hayley Gault
Please tell me your name, where in the UK your farm is, the type of sheep you farm and the number of sheep in your flock?
My name is Hayley, our farm is in East Antrim in Northern Ireland. We currently have around 600 sheep, mostly Wicklow Cheviots and Suffolk x Cheviots, but last year three Dutch Spotted Texel’s, two Dorset's and one very special Black Texel (named Betty, who was a gift to me) joined our flock.
How long have you or your family been involved in farming? What incentivised you to get involved?
My dad and grandfather were both farmers, as well as several generations before that. Our family has lived, worked, and farmed in this area for well over one hundred years, so we have a deep connection to this place. I myself came to it later than most, and it came as a bit of shock to everyone, most of all me.
I studied, lived, and worked in cities, but like most children of farmers (especially those who themselves don't farm) the question of the ‘future of the farm’ begins to become a very real and fast approaching reality - one that needs careful consideration and active discussion.
I was feeling unfulfilled in my previous job roles, and with my mind more preoccupied with the workings on the farm, I took a leap and decided to quit, to come back and to work with my family on our farm.
I am couple of years on from that moment now, and I haven't looked back. My confidence has grown (and my working hours) but it was the best decision I have ever made. My passion is working with the sheep and land management. I truly think it was what I was always meant to do.
What does it mean to be a woman in the agricultural/ farming industry? How important is it to you to raise awareness of female led farming?
I don't think you can overstate the need for the representation of women (those who identify as female) in any industry, but particularly those industries which are traditionally male dominated. It’s ironic as women have always been vital to agriculture, with their labour historically going unseen.
It is therefore very frustrating that occasionally I still get comments asking whether I can do the things men can do, comments relating specifically to my gender and what I look like, am I married, isn't it “a shame I don't have any brothers to take over the farm”. It is a shame that women feel that they have to prove themselves twice as much as another man in order to be taken seriously. We are equal.
The new wave of young female farmers using social media as a platform has been great for farming - it's a space where you can represent your work to expanded publics and connect with others. It is clear that women are at the forefront of a new wave of important agri-representation, they are part of the future of this industry and for good reason - women always have been and are incredible farmers.
Apart from that, I'm also highly aware that I'm working with about 600 female animals, and I believe that commonality, connection, and empathy is invaluable in the job - these females need celebrating too, which is why brands like Yan Tan are very important to me.
What does an average day look like for a sheep farmer and what are some of the responsibilities?
Our busiest time on the farm would be lambing time. During this period, we really are working the full 24 hours of the day!
I wake up around 6am, check all of the stock, giving them feed (hay, meal) and additional water. The day is then spent checking on new-born’s health, assisting with difficult births, getting lambs and ewes prepared to go out to the field when ready, moving them to the field and cleaning out their pens and bedding. You take care of any sick lambs or lambs without mother's, check again, and this goes on well into the small hours. There is always one ewe who decides to lamb at 2am.
Throughout the year your responsibilities change with the seasons. The sheep are constantly settled then moved on to fresh grass. Summer comes and you bring them all in to be shorn (their fleeces are shorn, rolled and packed). In Autumn, rams are selected and put out to the field with batches of ewes to breed. Winter comes and you bring these ewes in, and then scan them to see if they are carrying a lamb. They are then marked to identify how many they are carrying (single, twin, triplet). Then we are back to lambing time again!
Another key point - in a day of sheep farming, a job that should take five minutes usually turns into an hour-long task, every sheep farmer will know what I'm talking about!
What is your most memorable work or proudest moment as a sheep farmer?
I think my proudest and most memorable moment was my first time properly working the ‘lambing season’. It was such a steep learning curve, and I realised there was a very big difference from knowing what to do / watching someone do it, to actually doing it yourself!
It was after going through this season and reflecting on this time that I felt that I could really call myself a farmer - that was a big shift in my thinking.
Is there anything you would like others to know about sheep farming? Perhaps there’s a misconception or something that’s overlooked?
I think a real misconception around sheep farming (and farming in general) is a lack of understanding behind where our food and wool truly comes from, and how much work, value and history is behind its production.
I think sometimes there is a disconnect between the idyllic image of ‘sheep on rolling hills’ and the actual, active role that they are playing environmentally - and the hard work and care that goes into looking after them. Sheep play a vital role in converting grass, our biggest asset (over 67% of Ireland and 40% of the UK is covered in pastures and natural grassland) into wool that we can use sustainably.
My dad always says, "every animal is an individual", and the misconception that they are just on the landscape or inanimate/passive couldn't be further from the truth - they MAKE the landscape, and behind every sheep there is a sleep deprived farmer/s devoted to looking after them - it’s an age-old living and working relationship between human and animal.
This unique relationship is of huge value to society. Once it’s gone it would be very difficult to replace. We need to work to embed these systems more within the public conscience, so that people are best placed to make well informed ethical and sustainable decisions.
In your opinion what does British wool farming stand for and why should we choose British wool?
For me, wool produced here in UK stands for high welfare standards, sustainability, land regeneration and supporting the rural economy. To know that when buying British Wool products, you are supporting these three things is much more than any other material can offer.
I really wanted to understand all things wool after my first season shearing. I realised then myself what an undervalued product it is. As Yan Tan highlights, many farmers simply burn their fleeces as it costs more to shear the sheep than you get paid for the fleece itself.
I was in charge of rolling the fleeces, and by the end my arms were so soft (and also tired) from the lanolin that keeps the wool waterproof. I took a course in wool spinning to learn more and I was able to spin my own sheep Betty's wool. Seeing how the fibre works and how her single fleece could make so much wool was such a special moment for me. This reinforced how much pride, time, care, and labour goes into wool and wool production.
Unfortunately, the low prices farmers generally receive for their wool represents the disconnect between the ethical and sustainable materials we have on our doorstep vs fast fashion / cheap plastic fibres. As a product wool is amazing- it's breathable, water resistant, antibacterial, biodegradable, feels and looks beautiful, is sustainable, ethical- it's hard not to fall in love with it once you wear it.
We should choose British Wool as it’s a way for everyone to contribute to and to feel part of a vital ecosystem, one that we have on our doorstep and need to support and protect moving forward.
What factors contribute to the quality of the wool, i.e., lifestyle, feeding, weather, free roaming?
Good produce always comes from good care. Healthy, well cared for sheep produce beautiful wool. From the moment they are born, good health, care and management affects the whole sheep’s ‘being’, from their behaviour to their feet health, wool, and ability to thrive - their happiness!
Sheep produce their wool in relation to their environment, so each breed has its own characteristics. For instance we graze our Wicklow Cheviots (a hill and hardy breed who have a thick and long fleece) on our highest patches of land, and lamb them outdoors. This is more labour intensive for us, but this compliments their breed and every year they produce the most lush, thick, and soft wool for us.
What's one of the most challenging lessons you've learned as a farmer?
I think farming challenges you in ways you couldn't predict. Regardless of the physical work involved and all the animal husbandry skills that you acquire along the way, there are always things you can’t predict…every day is completely unique.
I think farming really challenges how you view the world and your place within it. You become acutely aware of your place in nature, and you really become humbled by it. I had to learn that some things are out of your control, but also how amazing nature is and that we shouldn't view ourselves as outside of it but ‘within it’. I feel privileged to work with animals and on the land, but it can be an intense environment and one that stretches you physically and emotionally. Some days can be tough but there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a happy, healthy flock. It’s a feeling like no other and you really become experts in every individual animal.
I also learned to always, always close the gate behind you - sheep love to escape and they are always one step ahead of you. You have to be on your toes and thinking ahead the whole time.
We want to shine a light on the mental wellbeing of the farming community and we’re working with R.A.B.I – what do you think the factors are in farming that can affect the mental health of those who work in the industry?
Farming is non-stop. It’s not a 9-5 job where you can go home and switch off / forget about it until the next day. There are hundreds of living beings relying on you, the weather can be disruptive and unpredictable, things can go wrong and that can be extremely challenging.
It can also be very solitary if you aren’t working with a family member or in a team, and even then, it can be difficult on relationships. It’s emotionally, mentally, and physically very, very demanding, as well as being something that you care deeply about, and perhaps have the weight of generational labour behind you. Farmers face difficulties on their own and you have to be your own business manager, vet and mechanic - there really are many, multi roles within the ‘farmer’ label.
It can be difficult to talk about these demands to people who don't understand the context in which you are working. On top of this there is the pressure of fluctuating markets and incomes, the uncertainty of post Brexit measures and trade deals which don’t feel in the interest of UK farmers or consumers.
In saying that, farming allows you to feel a part of the world - in and with natural ecosystems. This coexistence and being outdoors and active is extremely beneficial to health and wellbeing - there are so many plus points to farming and I feel very fulfilled in my role however it’s essential that organisations like R.A.B.I are there to provide support for the community and raise awareness of these issues.
What does fair production and transparency mean to British wool farmers?
I think for the volume of work that goes into shearing and wool handling and knowing what a quality product it is, farmers deserve to get fair pay for their labour, and consumers deserve to see exactly how the wool is produced and where their wool comes from.
People don’t realise that behind the ‘wool’ is the constant care of a flock, the time and cost involved in bringing your flock in to be shorn (either by yourself or a paid team), and how skilled and physically demanding the shearing process is. The fleeces are rolled and packed into large sacks, then loaded and transported to the wool board. It’s a process that takes time but is essential for the sheep’s welfare (to be cooler in summer and minimise risk of fly strike).
Many wool products are actually made with imported wool and this is such a shame when we have so many high-quality fleeces here, so transparency in the entire production of the fleece I think is key.
Let’s talk sustainability! The buzzword in farming right now its carbon neutral farming, how has this affected you?
I'm sure there are a lot of discussions happening across farms in the UK regarding the climate crisis, there are things that definitely need to evolve and change but I think there is already so much we are getting right that we can work from.
I am a passionate believer that sheep are part of the solution and already are! Sheep have the ability to graze and manage land that can't be used for cropping (for example wetter or hillier land unsuitable for growing cereals or plants), they fertilise soil and help store carbon in that soil, as well as storing about 1.2kg of carbon per 1kg of their own fleece (wool is also a great soil fertiliser in itself). They produce one of the most sustainable materials available to us, as well as food and biodiversity in our rural landscape.
I am educating myself all the time and I want to make it my life's work to contribute to the future of farming in an ethical, sustainable, and biodiverse way, with my flock at the forefront of it.