Rachel Watson on the farm
Rachel Watson on the farm

Rachel Watson’s family goes back five generations at Stoney Hill, in Harwood, but her ancestors have farmed in the area for even longer. Given her enthusiasm for agriculture, it seems that the tradition will be maintained for many years to come. Reporter Wendy Short travelled up the dale to meet her

STONEY Hill farmhouse sits at 1,500 feet above sea-level and the Watson family’s rights on Harwood fell extend still higher, making for a long winter.

The land has special significance as it is host to several species of rare flowers, including the blue gentian and the bird’s eye primrose, as well as a number of rare orchids. The farm, therefore, participates in a number of environmental schemes, which place some restrictions on tasks such as the cutting of hay and fertiliser applications.

The family’s flock of pedigree Swaledales is well known on the fiercely-competitive local show circuit. High Force is one of the family’s favourite annual events and last year one of their gimmer shearlings was crowned overall champion.

Mid-April is lambing time, with the first finished lambs away in November and all sold by January, whenever possible. Swaledale gimmer lambs and draft ewes are sold through Middleton-in-Teesdale auction mart, while wether lambs are taken to the mart’s collection point, to be sold on the deadweight system. Meanwhile, a Texel tup is used on a handful of the older ewes, to produce lambs for the early market. The suckler herd is made up of 30 Limousin cross cows, which are put to a Limousin bull to produce store calves for sale from November until May.

Ms Watson attended Forest-of-Teesdale school, which she says was an “amazing” experience.

“There were 15 pupils at the school when I attended and only five of us in my year,” she says. “I wouldn’t change it for the world and I was very relieved when I heard the news that the threat of school closure had been lifted,” she says.

“I went on to Teesdale School and from there I had the chance to join the Utass Farmers of the Future scheme. I was found work on a beef and sheep farm in Mickleton and on a sheep farm in Killhope. The course organisers arranged for me to take various certificates, including chemical spraying and sheep dipping, and I also took my trailer test and learnt dry stone walling. It was very useful and I was grateful for the opportunity.”

The working day for Rachel is made up of farm tasks at home, which are fitted in between several part-time jobs on holdings in Teesdale and Weardale. She is in particular demand at lambing time and last year helped out with the family’s own flock, alongside five separate lambing jobs elsewhere.

“I never tire of lambing time, especially at home,” she says. “It’s always exciting to get that first glimpse of one of the pedigree Swaledale lambs, although individuals that look like promising show prospects when they are first born can change as they mature. Sometimes, lambs which looked nothing special at first develop favourable characteristics when they are older,” she says.

Sam Turner

“After lambing, I help my customers with tagging and worming and then it’s time for clipping, followed by hay timing. I also gather sheep on the fells for other people with my quad bike and my collie, Gell; she was broken in when I bought her, but we usually train our sheepdogs ourselves.”

Ms Watson’s father Michael works full time on the farm, while her mother, Dianne, is employed in the office at Phillip Holden’s agricultural merchants in Barnard Castle; Rachel also works part-time at the merchants on occasion, while her brother, Philip, works for Tiplady’s agricultural contractors.

“There is plenty of work in our region and the farmers I work for know that I am as capable of doing heavy or dirty work as a man; that is the way I like it,” she says.

“I’ve always loved hill farming and have never thought of doing anything else,” says Rachel. “I feel the same about the area where I live; it has never crossed my mind to move away. I have no special plans and I’m perfectly content to carry on with my life and see where it takes me.”

PHOTOGRAPHY

DESPITE describing her professional photography enterprise as a “sideline,” Ms Watson is kept busy throughout the show and sale season, taking professional pictures of livestock.

She has always enjoyed taking pictures as a hobby, but it turned into paid work six years ago, when she was asked to photograph the Swaledale tup sales at Middleton-in-Teesdale and St John’s Chapel. She uses a Canon EOS 7D camera.

“Digital photography is fairly time-consuming, because there is a lot of sorting and editing work to do once the pictures have been downloaded. I have done wedding photography for a couple of friends, but it is not a route I choose to take. It creates a lot of pressure and I much prefer to work with animals. Flowers and animals are my main passion and sheep are my ultimate favourite subjects.

“I always have my camera with me when I’m working on farms and that means it lives a fairly dangerous life. But I’m very aware that the one occasion when I don’t have it with me will be the time when I will see the perfect shot. My camera is always getting left on walls and in sheep pens and I’ve had to dry it out several times. A robust case is essential.

“It is hard to describe why I enjoy photography so much; perhaps it’s the contrast between art and farm work. It’s all about capturing the moment and sometimes being able to see something that no-one else has seen in quite the same way. I’m also fascinated by the expressions on people’s faces and take a lot of pictures of people at agricultural shows. I don’t have much spare time, but I like to relax by creating pencil drawings or watercolour and pastel paintings, and playing the piano.”