Most new entrants dream of running their own farm. But it is not an easy ambition to fulfil, especially for those like Dominic Heeks who have no farming background. Emily Scaife finds out how he has managed to build his enterprise from the ground up.
On the face of it, Dominic Heeks is a lucky man, but his current achievements were only possible after years of hard work and not listening to those who told him his dreams were not possible.
The 23-year-old young farmer from Pershore, Worcestershire is not from an agricultural background. He has, however, not let that hold him back. He recently secured a farm business tenancy after a hectic few years working on sheep farms up and down the country, managing vast numbers of ewes on his own and even delivering his own baby in the back of a Land Rover with only his phone’s torch and charger to help him.
“My dad is a plasterer and my mum is a hairdresser, so we don’t have any farming links at all,” Dominic says.
“However, when I was 12 a friend of my dad’s said that I could come and work for him on his beef and arable farm. My 12th birthday fell during October half term and I was up there straightaway. He had 30 pedigree sheep, so I think that is where my interest first began.”
By the age of 15, he had managed to rent a couple of acres to keep 30 pedigree Charollais cross-Beltex on.
“I used to go down there every day on my moped,” he says. “It was just a bit of pocket money really, but I did buy my first sheepdogs off the back of selling them, including Max who is still with me today.”
After leaving school, he went to Hartbury College to study land-based technology and completed an 18-month work placement at John Deere. He realised, however, that his heart lay in livestock farming and secured a position working for local sheep farmer and fencing business owner Callum Jackson. “When I started, he had 120 running ewe lambs, but by the time I left three years later we were lambing 500,” he says. “I was fencing for eight hours a day and then taking care of the sheep on evenings and weekend.”
By the time he turned 19, Dominic had decided to leave home to pursue his dream of becoming a shepherd or, if possible, a farmer in his own right.
“My dad was very ill a few years ago with cancer and it was a turning point for me,” Dominic says. “I realised that life is too short, and I needed to chase my dreams.”
Through winter he moved to Hampshire to help manage a flock of 6,000 ewes across three counties for Kingsclere Estate, staying on for six months.
But with lambing around the corner, he made the decision to leave in order to get more experience on different farms around the country.
First, he moved up north to Preston to help Andrew Wood at Withy Trees Beltex for six weeks. After that, he went to County Durham to work nights, lambing 1,800 ewes on his own.
“Then I ended up going to Scotland to farm in the Cairngorms National Park at Lost Farm for the Gordon family with my new girlfriend, Melissa, who I’d met in Durham,” Dominic says. “I wasn’t planning on staying very long, but while I was there the existing shepherd fell ill. I said that I could stay to help and ended up working there for just over two years.
“Altogether there were 1,400 Texel-cross ewes and 1,100 Blackface ewes. I was the only shepherd, although I had some help from Melissa, game keepers and the family.
“We kept 600 replacing ewe lambs, 300 of each breed, and ran those on and tupped as shearlings. 250 draft ewes were sponged to lamb at the end of March to be sold with lambs at foot and the main flock followed on through April.”
And as if looking after 2,500 ewes was not enough work, Dominic and Melissa’s baby decided to arrive six weeks early and Dominic found himself taking on another unexpected role as a midwife.
“We were 10 days into lambing when Melissa’s waters went,” he says. “None of the local hospitals would take us because she was premature, so we were told to make our way to Aberdeen - a two-hour-drive away.
“I drove as fast as I could, but we couldn’t make it in time. I had to pull up and call an ambulance but by the time they got there, Florence had arrived. I had to put my phone in my mouth to use the torch to help deliver her and then I wrapped her up in my coat - with shaking hands.
“The person on the end of the 999 call asked me if I had anything to tie the cord with such as laces, but I was wearing wellies, so I had to use my phone charger.
“Melissa and Florence were both absolutely fine and her birth certificate lists her place of birth as the A944 between Glenlindie and Alford.”
When Florence was just three weeks old, the Gordon family were forced to give Dominic three months’ notice after Coronavirus impacted their business negatively. The new family made the decision to move back home to Worcestershire.
But despite getting down to the final two out of twenty-eight for a Farm Business Tenancy on a 230-acre farm in Shropshire, he lost out because he did not currently have any sheep.
Luck was on his side though, because another five-year Farm Business Tenancy for 65 acres soon became available in the village where the family were planning to rent a house.
“We managed to secure it so now we get a subsidy for that, plus we took on another 18 acres privately,” Dominic says.
He decided to start off with 100 Aberfield cross-Beulah ewes, which he purchased privately from a farmer in the Cotswolds.
“We chose these because I’m not a believer in feeding sheep and from past experiences with Innovis sheep at Callum’s farm I know it’s possible to make a great profit margin from a grass/forage based system,” Dominic says.
“The farm in Scotland used a completely different system - everything was fed and the scale was ridiculous.
“We’re in Worcestershire so the sheep won’t be eating rock and heather like they would up there.
“I needed a breed that was grass-based and that could lamb outside, because I don’t have any sheds. When I spoke to people, they told me the Beulah wouldn’t quite have the desired 200 per cent scan, but that’s fine - I don’t want them having triplets if they’re outside.”
Dominic will lamb next April, and will send them locally onto Worcester market. He hopes by that point to have increased his flock to 400.
But he will not be putting his feet up until then. “I’m currently working for a local fencing contractor four days a week driving his post knocker which is bringing in a regular wage while the sheep numbers are increasing,” he says. “But that will slow down shortly as I have around 3-4,000 sheep booked in for shearing, alongside my childhood friend Harry Ford.
“I’m also helping local farmers out with sheep work, drenching, dosing and fly spraying.
“My goal is to grow the sheep numbers up to 1,000 ewes before I’m 30 years old.”
He admits he has faced numerous challenges to get to this point and had to overcome many obstacles, not least the false hope that can come from working for other people.
“There have been quite a few setbacks, but I’m glad I’m my own boss now,” he says.
Despite a desperate need for the industry to attract new talent, Dominic reveals that he has received many disparaging comments from existing farmers looking to discourage him.
“I think a lot of people have judged me because I’m from a non-farming background, but I’m determined to not let that hold me back,” he says. “People also haven’t believed me when I’ve told them how many ewes I’ve managed on my own and told me it was impossible.”
His advice for other young people hoping to enter the farming industry is to work for decent people and get as much experience as possible.
“I learned something valuable at every farm I worked at. For instance, the farm in Durham had Innovis sheep, which led me to the Aberfield Beulah crosses I have now. And the farm in Hampshire taught me that sheep can survive off just fodder.
“Preston was great because they had pedigree sheep and they weren’t grass-based, which was a completely different experience. They taught me the importance of keeping both a farm and farm records organised.
“And then Scotland was invaluable - I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now if the Gordon family hadn’t given me the opportunity to run that many sheep.
“The best thing I have ever done was to travel around the country because I learned so much.”