Making the switch from life in the fast lane in London to the home farm in Dorset would prove difficult for some, but in Jemma Harding’s case, it was always where she would eventually end up. Emily Ashworth finds out how one moment can change everything.
They say everything in life happens for a reason and, in Jemma Harding’s case, it would seem a near fatal accident was the catalyst for her decision to go back to the family farm and leave her bustling life in London behind.
It was her father Richard who encouraged her to go and gain some experience in other walks of life than agriculture, which led to Jemma completing a photography degree at Nottingham Trent University, before falling into freelance work in the television industry.
Despite this, she had always maintained an interest in sheep and had grown up with them from an early age, helping her father on-farm.
She says: “I have always had sheep since the age of seven. It started off with pet lambs and obviously Dad realised this was not just a phase when I asked for pedigree ewes for my birthday.”
Blogging has become a must among those wishing to voice their support for the farm to fork ethos and Jemma is no stranger to the social media phenomenon.
Documenting her photography and the beginning of life on-farm, her blog ‘Me and Ewe’ allows Jemma to connect to others.
“Having the time and access to WiFi to update my blog is admittedly hard, but if I can reach out to even just one person and educate them about where their food comes from, I will be happy.
“The blog is something I am going to pursue further when things settle down, because I grew up with good food. My mother is a fantastic cook and people are more curious to know about what they are eating.”
After she left school, she lambed 75 Mule ewe lambs and persuaded her father to let her add them to the flock rather than sell them on.
Richard was adamant, however, that his daughter should still pursue other career opportunities, a push which eventually led her to working with celebrities for MTV.
Jemma says: “He knew sheep farming was a tough lifestyle and he pushed me to go and get a ‘proper job’ as he called it. But I think if Dad had invited me to farm initially, I definitely would have.”
Although she was living in the city, engulfed in the world of media, Jemma continued to maintain her interest with sheep.
Jemma, 36, has never taken a job over the chance to go back home to the 81-hectare (200-acre) farm in Dorset and help out with her flock, living between two polar opposite worlds for almost seven years.
“One minute I was interviewing celebrities and the next I was back at home, surrounded by the sound of bleating sheep.
With her weekends spent travelling back home to farm and her father looking after the flock during the week, it is easy to figure out Jemma’s passion never really subsided.
But it was a serious accident which forced her to quit life in the city and head back home to Dorset.
In 2008, Jemma’s whole world was turned upside down when she was cycling in London and ended up beneath a lorry which continued to drive on, practically shredding the front of her body.
With two holes in each side of her torso, a lacerated liver and her leg below the right knee narrowly escaping amputation, she was rushed to hospital and was critically ill.
She says: “When I woke up, the first person I saw was my dad. He was normally a very calm and laid back person, but he looked horrific and I just thought ‘what on earth have I done?’
“And that was it. I made the decision right there and then to buy myself a collie and moving back home to farm.”
What should have been a three-month stint in the Royal London Hospital turned into a short five weeks, as Jemma pushed herself to the limit to escape ‘the view of bricks and grey stone from my room and see a bit of green’.
"I was back out on the quad bike with a plastic bag over my damaged leg telling Dad what to do with my sheep"
With the support of her family and partner Callum, Jemma’s recovery was miraculous.
After weeks of intense surgery, including taking muscle from her back to repair her leg, delicate skin grafts and a lot of metal work, she finally returned home.
She says: “I was back out on the quad bike with a plastic bag over my damaged leg, shouting at Dad and telling him what to do with my sheep.”
But sadly the misfortune did not end there. A short but hard-fought battle with cancer in 2014 saw Jemma’s father pass away and overnight the farm was left for her to run.
She says: “I suddenly just had to know everything. It was a steep learning curve for me and, whereas before I solely concentrated on my sheep, I now had to manage grass, fodder beet and general farm maintenance.
“Dad used to keep me off the tractor. That was his thing when I came home and his way of not being redundant. Now it is just me.
“I miss having someone to bounce off and ask questions. I spend a lot of time on the Farming Forum because it is somewhere I feel I can ask opinions and, more so, not feel like I am alone when I don’t know the answer to something.
“I am constantly asking questions and just trying to be the best I can be.”
Jemma has 400 ewes at present and aims to breed a slightly smaller ewe at 70kg, rather than an 80-100kg Mule.
Finding her feet, she has changed her methods, swapping from Dorset rams to Cheviots to breed replacements out of the best ewes, and started to performance record to help her select the best for breeding.
Living on the outskirts of surburbia, foxes are are an imminent threat. She lambs inside during February and March, finishes them herself and is now the sole provider of lamb to local butcher Keatings, Wimborne.
Being an advocate for local produce, Jemma is keen to keep it this way, but recalls how the initial transition took some persuasion to impress her father.
She says: “I felt I was putting a huge amount of care into my sheep, so I wanted this to be translated into the next stage.
“Paul Keating is a great butcher and passionate about the provenance of all his meat.
“Dad was not keen on this idea at all at first. We had always sold at the local market, but he ended up loving it.
“He knew a lot of people and everyone used to tell him how they had bought his lamb and absolutely loved it.”
Eventually, the desire is to breed a ewe which can lamb with no assistance and, over the years, lambing percentage has crept up, meaning Jemma’s already at a stage where she barely has to touch them.
“I am aiming towards a flock of ewes which rears twins, weans at least their bodyweight off grass with minimal help and can lamb outside happily.”
Jemma is also set on increasing her knowledge of grass management, realising the potential benefits it could have on her future flock.
“I would like to improve my grass management as much as possible – I have lots to learn there.
“I know utilising grass is key to better returns, but I am still learning how best to do so and will need to be better as my stocking rate increases.”
The last couple of years may not have been easy for Jemma, but she is now doing what she sincerely loves.
When asked how farm life compares to London’s media world, she is under no illusion as to what was going to happen.
“I knew what I was letting myself in for. I don’t think about what I do here on the farm, I just do it.
“Farming is something I always knew I would come back to, it has just happened a lot quicker due to my accident. If I could go back and change things in terms of what happened to me, I wouldn’t.
“It was horrific, but I wouldn’t be where I am now without it and I have a great life. I do not miss London and I am incredibly proud of my sheep.
Farming always did bring me back to reality.”