In Conversation with Zoë Colville, ‘the Chief Shepherdess’

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? 

Zoe Colville, tenant farmer in Kent, rent multiple parcels of land all-over the county. We have a flock of around 650 breeding ewes currently, which lamb from mid-March onwards. We have a huge variety of breeds as we rent such varied grazing. We have more native breeds like Hebridean, Soay and Shetland for our conservation grazing sites as its rougher land. Selection of hill ewes such as Swaledale’s, Scotch blacks and the odd Herdwick and then more conventional breeds such as Mules, Suffolk mules, Romneys (Kent’s) and Lleyn’s. Then we have the dreamboat Greyface Dartmoor Elsie. 


How long have you or your family been involved in farming? What incentivised you to get involved?

My boyfriend Chris' father and grandfather were farmers, but he died when Chris was 12 so he turned to plumbing. I was hairdressing in Soho when we met and after Chris was left bedridden after a virus in Asia, he started going shooting with his dads’ friends to get him outdoors as it made him feel so much better. I stayed in the salon until my dad suddenly (within five weeks from getting sick) died and I decided to be able to grieve and heal I needed to be with the animals and nature and so I began farming full time. This has enabled the two of us to grow our empire and build a life for ourselves.


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?

Personally, I feel that the fact that I AM a woman in the farming industry, one who wasn't born into the industry is enough. Young girls seeing me up to the elbow in an ewe helping her to birth a lamb wearing my gold hoop earrings and topknot is enough. I am proud to say I'm a farmer and the fact I'm here off my own back and hope that for the younger generations it becomes a viable career choice without necessarily being a farmer’s son who spent his childhood on a John Deere tractor!


What does an average day look like for a sheep farmer and what are some of the responsibilities?

It varies hugely on the time of year and your farm set up. For us because our sheep are always so spread out, we spend most our day in the truck driving to the various fields and walking round to check no one is stuck in brambles, lame, unwell or that they haven’t made a break for it and are in a garden next door! In the summertime we have to drive round with an IBC on the back and make sure all the water troughs are full and keep an eye out for any flystrike and treat that. Winter may include rolling out bales of hay to keep the pregnant ewes fed if the grass hasn’t much nutrients. Springtime we are rushed off our feet as lambing 650 ewes between the two of us is HECTIC. But there is no other feeling like it, it’s like a drug. Watching the lambs take their first breath and get to their wobbly legs. There is sadness involved but somehow you cope because it’s the most fulfilling job in the world.


What is your most memorable work or proudest moment as a sheep farmer?

Chris bought a seemingly dead lamb to me from one of the fields on lambing. I treated him with various medication and a few homeopathic remedies and expected him to die that day. I went out on my rounds and came back, and he was trying to stand. Later that day he was sucking milk from a bottle, then walking (stumbling) and now he is out on the turnips living his best life. 


In your opinion what does British wool farming stand for and why should we choose British wool?

Nearly all farming practises are now reverting back and taking inspiration from former practises in the past, for example, using sheep to graze cover crops and so I have my fingers tightly crossed that the same happens for the wool demand also. Wool is a by-product, we should seek value in that, educate, educate and educate. Here’s to celebrating each victory as more brands realise the desirable properties of that fibre bobbing around in the fields.


What factors contribute to the quality of the wool, i.e., lifestyle, feeding, weather, free roaming?

Everything. It’s like us humans. You wake up on a Monday after a heavy weekend, fast food, alcohol, cheeky cig, sleeping on the camp bed of your friends flat and how do you feel? In the grand scheme of things, the outside reflects what’s on the inside, so the sheep’s "coat" is no different. The lanolin in their fleece is the most incredible moisturiser I've ever known, a day of wool wrapping at shearing time and your skin is like a baby. So, no wonder the fleece stays so gorgeous!


What's one of the most challenging lessons you've learned as a farmer?

You are Mother Nature's bi**h. She chooses if you have a successful year, or she can break you. You have to just roll with it, adapt and have a good sense of humour. This has tested my control issues but it puts your life into perspective sometimes.


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?

Pretty much the job in general if I'm totally honest. Lack of control being a huge one: markets fluctuate, the weather, disease outbreaks, limited backing and support from the Government, the list is endless. That then goes hand in hand with financial stresses that are seemingly and largely out of your control also can tip you over the edge. Farmers just keep on going, they are so resilient, doesn't matter if you are having a low day or you've been up all night worrying, they still need to be fed and cared for and that devotion to the animals is what makes a brilliant farmer but equally I believe it can be what breaks us because we rarely put ourselves first, because we can't. Isolation from loved ones which is very easy when you have little energy left to socialise teamed with all of the above is a recipe for disaster and all too common of late. The conversation must be normalised. 


What does fair production and transparency mean to British wool farmers?

It will snowball. Giving sheep farmers confidence will be contagious and we will all be shouting about it! It'll give us our mojo back!


Let’s talk sustainability! The buzzword in farming right now its carbon neutral farming, how has this affected you?

It means we are being offered more grazing, in honesty. This year has been brilliant for arable farmers calling us to "borrow" our sheep to graze their crops and in turn fertilise it with their poos. Free and nutritious grub for our sheep. I am buzzing about the fact that slowly the narrative is changing from "Farmers are the antichrist and their cow farts are destroying the planet" to a more realistic narrative that then we can shout about and it’s not falling on deaf ears. The only way is up from here.