Delivering lambs is part of the job for Britain’s best-known shepherdess but, when it came to having her own baby, Emma Gray admits the birth was far from routine.
The arrival of little Len two years ago became a medical drama when his heartbeat started to fall in the womb, prompting doctors to order an emergency Caesarean section.
Thankfully, mum and son were saved by the skill of the medical team and Emma, 35, has revealed her delight at moving to a new farm in Scotland with Len and firefighter husband Ewan.
She was just 23 when she singlehandedly took over Fallowlees, a remote National Trust farm in Northumberland, going on to star in ITV’s celebrity shepherding contest Flockstars, BBC1’s Countryfile and BBC2’s This Farming Life.
However, she has now left the isolated and windswept 100-acre English holding to return to her Scottish roots. Together with her family, she is settling into a 680-acre holding on the Isle of Bute.
The family arrived on a ferry with 500 sheep, 40 cows, 20 dogs, three cats, 11 goldfish, and all their worldly belongings packed into two wagons, one car and a trailer. The family got on to dry land in the nick of time after a cow had a calf within moments of landing.
With the BBC team back to film the fourth in the This Farming Life series, and a new book just out, Emma, from Hawick, said: “We’ve taken Len back to his Scottish roots. We have always had a hankering to come back, even though we love Northumberland. There is something appropriate about coming home to Scotland. Len is going to grow up with a Scottish accent, which is cool.
“Here we have neighbours and a sense of community we didn’t have at Fallowlees. We were very isolated and cut off there.”
The move was all about Len, whose delivery could have ended in tragedy were it not for the skill of the medical team at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, who carried out an emergency caesarean section when he went into crisis in the womb.
Emma, whose baby had his second birthday on April 10, smack-bang in the middle of lambing, said: “I found giving birth really traumatic; brutal. I was so shocked. It was a lot harder than a sheep.
“I am not going to try for another baby, so Len might end up being an only child. It would have been so lonely and sad for him if we had stayed at Fallowlees. Bute is a lovely place to grow up.” Her baby got into difficulty during the birth when his heart rate dropped. Doctors had to remove him from the womb quickly. Emma told The Sunday Post: “When it is an emergency C-section you are warned you might die, or your baby might die, or you could be paralysed. It’s awful. They have to tell you the risks before they can do it.
“The section usually involves one cut, but they had to do another vertical cut because they couldn’t get the baby out.
“When it is life or death like that, they have to do what they have to do. I have been in a similar situation with a sheep. Having the C-section was probably more terrifying for me because I understand just how fragile life is. I am up against it all the time.
“It is on a hair trigger. I have seen it happen. Things can just die, and that is frightening when you go through giving birth yourself. You have seen things not going to plan.”
She was back home at Fallowlees 12 hours after the birth, but admits to struggling. “I just wanted to get out of hospital as quick as I could,” she said. “Because of the surgery I couldn’t drive. It was so isolating. And we were in the middle of lambing.
“Len had bad colic and I had bad anxiety. It was horrendous. You’d think someone in my job – who for a few months every year is helping animals to give birth – would be good at it, but I wasn’t. Everyone says giving birth is so magical but I just felt like I had been run over by a train.”
Within four months, however, she was back in the swing of things, until Covid-19 hit.
“A lot of childcare was cancelled with coronavirus,” she said. “My mum was amazing and helped during lockdown, but she couldn’t do it all and I just had to take Len along. Lambing with a baby is crazy. I had him on my back.
“I just carried him around. Luckily, as soon as we knew we were getting the tenancy on Bute, Ewan was able to quit his job, so there was the two of us.”
The record-breaking sheepdog trainer penned her first book One Girl And Her Dogs in 2012. In the latest, My Farming Life, she opens up about the past nine years of her life, her heartaches and her joys.
Emma – who grew up on her parents’ farm – took on the sole tenancy of Fallowlees after a painful break-up with her then-fiancé. She believed she would remain a perpetual singleton out on the hills.
Reliving that time, she said: “I just seemed to lurch from one crisis to another. My boyfriend had just dumped me and I was sad and not as aware as I would usually be.
“Then I ran over my own dog, Bill. He was old and deaf and didn’t hear me coming on the tractor.
“I had had Bill for his whole life and a good chunk of mine. It was the most horrendous feeling. I had to carry around the guilt of that.”
But worse was to come. In 2016 she broke her back in a quad bike accident at her mum and dad’s place. She was rushed to Borders General Hospital in Melrose, where she lay flat in traction for a week.
“It was an unstable fracture, which means it was broken all the way through and there was a risk I could have been paralysed,” said Emma. “I was very lucky and very grateful.”
Life was finally on the up. The shepherdess met firefighter Ewan Irvine, 43, on a dating app. The pair married in 2018 at Kelso Town House before holding a reception on her parents’ farm followed by a honeymoon at an international sheepdog trial in Ireland, where she was competing.
She smiled: “I knew any man I met would have to take on my lifestyle, rather than the other way round. There was no way I was prepared to give up what I had worked so hard for.
“It surprised and delighted me that Ewan was prepared to give up everything. If we had stayed at Fallowlees, it would have been hard for us both to make a living off just 100 acres. Bute feels like this is a big jump up the ladder.
“We got a wagon to drive the livestock to the island. It was a huge day. We had all the cattle on one wagon and the sheep on the other. We were in a car with a trailer that had all of our furniture in it. We took the dogs over in two trips.
“It was pouring down and we were really concerned because the cows and the ewes were in calf. It was so stressful I had a twitch in my eye for about a week afterwards. But everything worked out brilliantly. Our neighbours were amazing.”
With her dogs at her heels and Ewan bringing news that cows Parnsip and Anna just delivered healthy calves, she said: “If I had been writing my perfect life I could not have dreamed it as good as this. But I have imposter syndrome – it is hard for me to think I am worthy of something this amazing; especially in the mornings when I wake up to a sea view.
“I had this real big urge for a Pina Colada the other day, and couldn’t understand why. Then I realised it is because of the salty sea air and the coconut smell of the gorse bushes that are in full bloom. It feels like we are on holiday – so Ewan went to the Co-op to get some to celebrate.
“We have moved to our perfect home in a perfect location. We are never moving again. I told Ewan, we are going out of here in a box.”
My Farming Life: Tales From A Shepherdess On A Remote Northumberland Farm is published by Sphere
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