How I wooed the lovelorn shepherdess
Emma Gray made headlines with a book chronicling her solitary life on a Northumberland farm miles from civilisation - and the opposite sex. So could Jonathan Brown be the answer to her prayers?
Little Bo Peep had a problem and it had nothing to do with misplacing her sheep. The issue is having stepped on a dirty great nail. It is hardly the stuff of nursery rhymes but it did present the chivalrous opportunity to give Emma Gray, the woman dubbed Britain's loneliest shepherdess, a lift from her remote Northumberland farm back down the four miles of juddering, satnav-bewildering forest tracks for a set of jabs at the local doctors.
Living on her own for the past three years without gas or mains electricity and with just her 13 border collies for company has focused surprising attention to the 26-year-old Scot.
Determined to realise the dream of owning her own farm, she has defied expectations to tough out a Spartan existence on a blasted moorside for three hard winters. Here the wind blows constantly. In the summer, the midges eat you while in the winter snow has seen her holed up for five days at a stretch.
But media speculation has focused not on her achievements battling the elements and the crazy economics of modern agriculture, and instead on the state of her love life.
Having split with a previous boyfriend after moving in, she told a reporter that one day she might like a companion – generating a spate of lovelorn headlines of the "Little Beau Peep" variety.
"I don't need someone the way it has been portrayed as poor little shepherdess by herself needs a man," she says. "I am perfectly prepared to wait until someone is right. I am not going to rush into anything. Especially as I have the whole summer ahead of me," she says
Attractive, articulate and funny she defies the stereotype of the crook wielding pastoral, and she has not been short of offers since publicity following the publication of her book about her adventures One Girl and her Dog: Life, Love and Lambing in the Middle of Nowhere.
But she says she does not reply to letters, smiles pleasantly at overtures in the street and has no wish to encourage anyone right now.
Yet it is soon apparent that that "right" person would have to be made of stern stuff as she tells how she accidentally knocked a deer down recently, loaded it in the back of her van and brought it home to cut it up for her dogs.
Survival here is hard. "This is hardly the land of milk and honey. This is terrain full of adders, ticks and weeds actually," she says. Before she was awarded the tenancy two-and-a-half years ago, farming here had been abandoned.
Ticks the size of a thumb nail which can suck the life out of a sheep, fatal Lyme disease caused by deer, the remoteness and the dwindling financial return on sheep had persuaded the previous tenants to give up.
Yet when the tumbledown farmhouse and 150 acres was offered for rent, 20 potential tenants came to bid. In the end – despite her age and relative inexperience – she convinced the landlords, the National Trust, to give her a chance.
"Ever since I was little when I used to blow out the candles on my birthday cake I used to wish for my own farm. That is what I have got but it has been a double-edged sword," she recalls.
"I didn't choose this lifestyle. I just wanted a farm so badly I am prepared to put up with it. People think I came here for the solitude but that was just part of living my dream," she said.
Remoteness means that days are often spent alone. She has a small television, a computer and a mobile phone that keeps her in touch with the outside world, but the generator is apt to pack up at the least opportune time – normally when she is cold and tired – and problems such as the nail in the foot can prove become full blown dramas.
So bad is the road linking her with the local village that she has gone through four vehicles already. Meanwhile, a previous laird's dedication to the Quaker faith, means the nearest pub is a 30-minute drive away. Even the Royal Mail wanted to stop delivering her letters.
Yet she rejects comparison with legendary Hannah Hauxwell who became famous in the 1970s when she farmed alone in the high Pennines.
"I am quite a sociable person. I like to go to the pub and have a couple of drinks. I am not reclusive by any means. I am certainly not waiting for people to come to me. If I did I would be waiting a long time. But the bond with the dogs keeps me going through it all," she says.
There have been times when she has wished to give up although she has never been spooked from being alone – not even when gunman Raoul Moat was on the loose nearby. "Money-wise coming to a farm like this, with the investment I have had to make, there have been times when I have wondered what I am doing just chasing my tail.
"In the first year I thought 'I can't do this.' My car kept breaking down and everything was so expensive. The generator means electricity is three times as much as off the grid and diesel is so expensive. I have even had to turn the Aga off," she says.
But having grown up on farm in the Scottish borders, studied sheep management at college and finally laid claim to her own patch of land, she says the way of life is in her blood.
"I will never leave farming. I like everything about it. I am my own boss. I am working with animals. I am doing everything I love. What is not to love?" she asks with a laugh.
"It is rare for someone to be farming in their own right at 26 – especially a girl ... I might not be as strong as a man but being a woman can have its own advantages," she adds. "Everyone has been keen to see me do well. A lot of people think I am crazy for choosing this life but no one wants to see me do badly."
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