Alice Hayton, 15, is determined to make a name for herself in farming. Emily Ashworth meets the Hayton family to talk about their past, present and future.
It is fair to say Brow Top Farm has a strong family history behind it, stretching back seven generations. And its future looks pretty bright too. Young farmer Alice Hayton, 15, has certainly inherited the farming bug from parents George and Sarah, but has her own ideas of how she wishes to handle her farming future.
One of the first things she says while climbing the hillside in Kentmere, Kendal, Cumbria, is how much she loves this life – and how she thinks much more highly of farming than she does school. But with not long to go until she can begin her new adventure at Newton Rigg College, Alice is concentrating on accompanying her dad as much as possible and growing her flock of rare breed Derbyshire Gritstones.
George and Sarah have obviously been huge influences for Alice and her younger sister Anna, and their journey to this point has not been the easiest. George has had pulmonary fibrosis – also known as farmer’s lung – since he was 16, and they were eventually told he would need a lung transplant.
Sarah says: “He got along with it with the help of steroids. But when Alice was born, we noticed it got worse, probably because I wasn’t helping as much on-farm.”
In October 2006, they made the decision to disperse their dairy herd and as George’s condition deteriorated, they also got rid of almost all the sheep. But Sarah insisted they kept a small number of sheep so George had ‘something to get up for’.
“As we know, this isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle,” says Sarah, who works as an artificial insemination technician for Semex.
With so much grass at their disposal their sheep numbers started to slowly creep back up again, as the family tried to go about their lives normally after they endured what felt like an endless wait for the transplant.
“Alice was five at this point, and she was already keen, helping me out and about,” says Sarah.
Aged 45, George finally got the call in 2008 they had been waiting for and after a successful operation he continued to farm while encouraging Alice’s passion for it too.
George says: “They say ‘don’t do this and don’t do that’, but the only thing I try to stay away from is the sheep dipping as that affects my breathing. “Plus, the doctor says ‘keep doing whatever you’re doing because it’s working’.”
Both George and Sarah mention how close Alice is to her dad, having witnessed his ordeal, more so as the farming side has grown again.
“She’s always loved animals. There’s a picture of her sat in the barn with lambs when she was little and she’s just beaming from ear to ear,” says George.
The family run 240 Swaledale ewes and 100 Mule ewes, with one-third going to Swaledale tups and the rest to a Bluefaced Leicester. Gimmer lambs are sold to North West Auctions and the farm has fell rights on Kentmere Common.
Now, though, Alice is concentrating on her flock of Derbyshire Gritstones, reluctantly bought by George but adored by his daughter after seeing them at Kilnsey Show. They are one of the oldest breeds in Britain, but their hardiness and quiet nature suits Alice and the area.
George says: “A few days after [the show] she said to me ‘I’d like some sheep – Derbyshire Gritstones’. I asked why, but she’d fallen in love with them, so I gave in.”
She now runs 22 Gritstones, focusing on growing numbers and making a name for herself at shows.
Alice says: “In 2017 I bought a second-prize shearling and that sheep has done well for me. It was the first proper breeding sheep I bought.
“This year I’ve put some Gritstones to Texel tups and put some Leicester ewes to a Gritstone tup.”
Fine-tuning her showring skills is also one of Alice’s priorities and after a shaky start in 2018, she returned last year to win a number of awards at Lowick and Kentmere shows. Alice says: “I can show in native and rare breed classes.
Westmorland Show has been one of the biggest for me because it’s the only Gritstone class around here and a lot of big breeders show there.
“I first showed in 2018 and I didn’t do that well, but I was still happy and thought I would go back.
“Then in 2019, I did quite well – I got plenty of second placings and they were in quite big classes.
“I’ve won a few champion titles as well, which I’m really pleased about.” At Countryside Live, Alice was also overwhelmed to have won the Champion Young Handler Award, which qualifies her for the Young Shepherd of the Year Award in the rare breed category.
George, who is evidently pleased of his daughter’s determination, says: “What I admire about her is she’s really put the time in.” The family also appreciates the social aspect of attending shows, given that it is miles to reach anywhere from Brow Top.
“I love the excitement of showing, especially the shows which last a couple of days,” says Alice.
“I never go expecting anything and I’m proud of my sheep, but I like getting to know breeders and gaining tips. It’s such a social event.”
Social media has been a huge help in promoting Alice’s flock, and she also puts up posters about the Gritstones at events, especially as ‘people are attracted to their look’.
But more than anything, for Alice it has been about building confidence and through Instagram, Twitter and her presence at shows, she feels she is now raising her profile as a breeder
“Someone said to me at a sale recently ‘I hear you’ve got some really good tup lambs’,” she says.
“I’ve started to become more known in the [Gritstone] society and I got most of my home-bred sheep and gimmer lambs registered this year.”
She is hoping to take on the three-year agriculture course at Newton Rigg, with a view to gaining experience in a different sector, perhaps on a dairy farm, she says. And there is talk of camping or accommodation as the area is renowned for walking.
“We’re in such a good area,” says Alice. “I will always love my sheep, but I also like the dairy side and I want to learn.
“I don’t remember the cows when they were here. I really would like to take this farm on when I’m older, but with the way farming is going I’d probably have to have another job too.”
George and Sarah are happy to see Alice forge her own path, and if she wants to take on Brow Top then it is there for her. Growing her Gritstone flock, venturing to college and making a name for herself is Alice’s next chapter, and with the continual support of her family, she looks set for success.
But like any father/daughter relationship, they have their moments.
“We do get on really well, but there are odd times when I’ll say, ‘let’s do it this way,” says Alice, as George admits that he ‘has to stop and think because it comes so naturally, but you have to take a step back’.
The family are beyond close after watching and supporting George through his illness, but if there was a word to sum up how they feel about Alice and her achievements so far, they both, of course, settle on ‘proud’.