New entrant Ailish Ross is helping fellow youngsters be seen, heard and rewarded as they develop their agricultural and sheep breeding careers. Laura McCulloch finds out more.
Having never stepped foot on a working farm until three years ago, 23-year-old Ailish Ross is a unique breed – living and breathing all things sheep.
After growing up in the urban surroundings of Glasgow, Ailish now surrounds herself with sheep enthusiasts every day.
Ailish believes she caught the farming bug from her great grandfather, a dairy farmer from South Ayrshire who owned four dairy farms in the area.
After studying at the Ayr campus of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Ailish graduated with a degree in applied animal science from Glasgow University.
She says: “I found the course when looking for something to do after school, as I always knew I wanted to work with animals. The course seemed interesting and increasingly important, as the world will always need to be fed. I fell completely in love with it.”
Realising she did not want to leave university without any practical experience, Ailish secured a lambing job at Shalloch Park Farm, Girvan, with Francis and Marion McMillan for three years, and acknowledges them for teaching her everything she knows.
“I learned general animal husbandry, how commercial farms work and operate, what is required from a terminal sire and replacement females for a commercial producer. Oh, and never to tuck your waterproofs into your wellies, which is what I did on my first day with them having never been on a farm before. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Further farm experience came from rearing calves in South Ayrshire for Alexander Park and Sons, during her fourth year of university. She did this every morning and evening, while juggling her university work and lambing in Girvan.
This drive to further her skills led her to complete a season with D. and C. Fawcett, a sheep breeding company in Penrith, Cumbria.
"I really enjoyed working as an artificial insemination technician. The hours were very long but it was an excellent opportunity for me to meet many breeders across different breeds. Traveling the length and breadth of the country allowed me to see different systems and helped me further understand the pedigree sheep industry due to only seeing the commercial aspects before. Working with a good team always makes work enjoyable and Fiona, Caroline and I became a great team and are now the best of friends."
The opportunity then saw Ailish into a six-month placement as a specialist breeding adviser at Signet Breeding Services, part of AHDB, when she moved to Coventry in March 2017.
Ailish landed her dream job in September last year, when she was appointed technical support and administration assistant at the British Texel Sheep Society.
A key part of her role is coordinating the society’s new genetic improvement services, supporting show and sale presence and member communications. She credits her previous experience as being crucial to using her skills.
“I think its greatly important I gained experience in the different remits and roles at the start of my career and this has helped me immensely with my role at the Texel society.
“Moving from working with sheep in a commercial environment to working with pedigree producers has let me see the whole journey of the sector. The different roles have allowed me to see large amounts of the country, meet many farmers and breeders, with different breeding goals and strategies, all of which has helped me develop knowledge and skills of the sector which otherwise I may not have had the opportunity to see.
“My role is diverse and allows me to be involved with all aspects of the society, which I thoroughly enjoy as every day is different. My opinions are taken into account and I really feel like I belong here and I am valued.”
Alongside this, Ailish also coordinates the society’s Youth Development Programme (YDP) which aims to engage young breeders and support their development. The programme holds a variety of social events and promotional activities at shows and sales, including a day out at Borderway Mart, Carlisle, on November, 18.
“Young breeders are vitally important to the future of the breed,” she says. “If we don’t keep the young people enthusiastic and interested then the breed will lack the breeders we need to keep the it a successful, popular and reliable choice for commercial producers.
“The society has many young breeders, so it’s a great responsibility for me to make sure they are supported and understand the role the Texel breed has to play in creating a more productive industry."
The Texel YDP also supports students with educational awards to universities including, Harper Adams, SRUC, Aberystwyth and Greenmount, with prize money for the highest graded sheep dissertation.
Ailish is also helping coordinate the iTexel conference, which will be held on November 17 at the North Lakes Hotel and Spa in Penrith, Cumbria, bringing together some important topics from a line up of speakers.
“The conference will provide farmers and those in industry with an opportunity to gain greater insight of the breed, research and development work, along with hearing about latest industry trends and shifts in consumer behaviour from a selection of industry professionals.
“Since university I have always been interested in livestock genetics. I think it’s the science behind it and the quick and permanent progress which breeders can make. With the advancement of science, breeders have a great opportunity to adopt new tools and improve genetics, whatever the environment they farm in or production system they have.
“During the post-Brexit era it will become increasingly important we keep producing sustainable and saleable carcases which meet consumer requirements.”
Being a completely new entrant into the agricultural industry has both hindered and helped Ailish but she credits her time at university as giving her such a positive outlook on agriculture and the self confidence to challenge herself along the way.
“I had to learn everything from scratch, which has been difficult and particularly challenging at times. However, it has definitely benefited me in the long run. It has been a pleasure to get to understand this industry and the way it works and I have a lot more to learn.
“This is a wonderful industry. I feel so lucky to go to work every day and I love every single moment and look forward to the next chapter in my career.
“I have been welcomed into it as though as I was born into it.”