Once described as ‘Britain’s loneliest shepherdess’, Emma Gray now has a new life with her family and faithful sheepdogs as they work to set up the Isle of Bute’s first organic farm. By Beverley Brown.

Nature can be a great antidote in times of stress and anxiety and never more so than during the Covid pandemic. This might explain the nation’s new love affair with farming, evidenced by Amazon Prime’s Clarkson’s Farm – a hugely entertaining and informative expose of Jeremy Clarkson’s bumbling antics with sheep, among many other things – which turned out to be an unprecedented hit.

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A steady stream of celebrities are following in his muddy footsteps, including Kate Humble and Strictly’s Kelvin Fletcher. Meanwhile, farming programmes such as Countryfile and This Farming Life are attracting viewing figures not seen since the days of All Creatures Great and Small.

For Emma Gray, however, farming is in the blood. Now living and farming with her husband Ewan and two-year-old son Len on the Isle of Bute, Scots-born Emma first came under the media spotlight back in 2008 as a 23-year-old shepherdess living and working solo at Fallowlees, a remote National Trust hill farm in rural Northumberland.

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Staying in a relic of the past that had no mains electricity, gas, water, or telephone line, she looked after 900 sheep, often supplementing her income shepherding for other farms, which at one point saw her caring for 3000 sheep.

Emma’s years in Northumberland are vividly brought to life in her two books: One Girl And Her Dogs: Life, Love and Lambing in the Middle of Nowhere (Sphere, 2012) and more recent My Farming Life (Sphere 2021, £16.99).

The eldest of three girls born and brought up on the family’s farm in Hawick, Emma’s books are compulsive reading and reveal the physical and emotional highs and lows as well as providing frank and fascinating insight into farming life.

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Books led to television appearances, which included The Alan Titchmarsh Show – after which she was dubbed Britain’s loneliest shepherdess – and Robson Green’s Tales from Northumberland.

The remote farm was also used as a location for the TV detective series Vera, which gave Emma unexpected funds, used to buy her first cows, four cross-bred heifers and an abandoned horse, later joined by an abandoned goat she named Mr Tumnus after the faun in the Narnia books. Farming leaves scant time for a social life and, living in the middle of nowhere, Emma’s chances of finding a life partner were as remote as the farm.

Tinder provided the solution, matching her with Galashiels firefighter Ewan Irvine, who admits he bought a copy of her book and fell in love with her before they even met. Possibly Tinder’s best match to date, Ewan split his time between shifts and the farm in Northumberland.

Emma, meanwhile, was training dogs, winning recognition and trophies as a capable dog handler and serious trialist – training and trialling sheepdogs being her number one passion since she was given her first dog, Bess, at the age of 13. In 2016, she won the All-England Nursery Final with her dog, Jamie, and the following year was part of the winning England team at the World Sheepdog Trials in Holland.

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Then she hit the jackpot, selling one of her dogs for 14,000 guineas only to go on and later smash her own record with another dog she had bred and trained for a world record sum of 18,000 guineas – which she was chuffed to see merited a mention on Have I Got News For You.

Marriage in 2018 followed by the birth of baby Len the following year, made life on the farm in Northumberland untenable. “We had to drive four miles down a very rough forestry track to even reach a road,” says Emma.

“Through friends, we heard about a farm tenancy on the Isle of Bute and applied – a rigorous process involving business plans, spreadsheets, gross margins and more, but were unsuccessful.

“However, shortly after, Mount Stuart Estate offered us a 20-year tenancy to Ardros Farm, which covers 680 acres on the west side of the island. We couldn’t believe our luck,” she says. “Fortunately, Mount Stuart Estate is very forward-thinking and recognises the importance of giving young people opportunities. Having been so remote, we are now only a short drive into Rothesay, which is perfect for Len when it comes to nursery and school.”

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Another plus, having survived a steep learning curve living with Emma in Northumberland, the move to Bute was the catalyst for Ewan to swap the fire service for full-time farming.

Born in Glasgow and raised in the south of Edinburgh, Ewan grew up with collies and had lived on a small holding for a while, so knew a little about keeping sheep and cows.

“Our goal had been to find a farm that was big enough for both of us to work, and Ardros made it possible,” he says.

Currently, they have 18 dogs, 600 sheep, and around 30 cows, the latter a mix of Aberdeen Angus and Bluegray, with a few English Longhorns.

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“Our claim to fame is one of our sheep is the brother of one of Jeremy Clarkson’s flock,” reveals Emma. Having recently been accepted into the organic scheme, the couple plan to breed and sell fully traceable organic beef and salt marsh lamb locally, making Ardros the first organic farm on the island.

“We’ve never used pesticides or fertilisers, we just didn’t have the certification before,” says Emma.

“If we are going to eat meat let’s eat good meat, and know it has been ethically reared, grass-fed, lived a good life and died on the island. Our farm is carbon neutral and therefore also better for the environment.”

And so to dogs, of which there are many, including Purdy, a cute and highly affectionate toy poodle, which Emma reveals was a present to herself nearly 10 years ago.

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“I love all my dogs, but collies are working dogs, whereas Purdy is a pet. Most of my dogs have been Border Collies, the Ferrari of the dog world. To own a sheepdog is to know unbounded loyalty, plus sheep get used to the dog.

“Our sheep are good, so we are able to breed and train dogs – and as many farmers don’t have the time to do it themselves, it’s a niche market.

“We give them a carefree puppyhood and start training around eight or nine months, and when they reach the age of two, we have to decide whether to compete or work with a dog, or sell it, which can be hard, but then I know I’m helping dogs achieve what they have been bred to do,” explains Emma.

The idea for a Sheepdog School (sheepdog-school.co.uk) came as a result of having a good internet connection for the first time. However, as being on an island makes it more difficult to provide tuition in person, Emma and Ewan have set up an online video subscription service, which currently has 650 subscribers.

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“Increasingly, we are finding people start off with the dog, then the sheep, then the farm … so our dogs are helping draw in a new sector.” Also new for 2022, Emma and Ewan have collaborated with four other young farming couples on the island to form Trials of Bute (trialsofbute.co.uk), a two-day event planned for July 16-17 that will include four sheepdog trials and culminate in a championship with a prize pot of £1000.

 “Sheepdog trials are such popular spectator events our aim is to make this an annual event, free of charge and easily accessible, so people can come to the island and be inspired, which is how I started,” says Emma.

Life has come full circle for this plucky couple. They now have the comfort of a two-bedroomed farmhouse with all mod cons, and their son Len will be able to go to a local school and socialise with other children.