As the Dykes family of West Linton prepare for the arrival of Kate Humble and the Lambing Live team, their leading ladies are feeling a little, well, sheepish, finds Claire Black
If there is a sense of the calm before a storm at South Slipperfield Farm near West Linton, it’s not for the reason you’d expect. On a sheep and cattle farm, at this time of year, when the daffodil and tulip bulbs are making their first appearances in the tended gardens of the nearby villages, farmers are preparing for one of their busiest seasons: lambing. But the twang of trepidation at this Borders farm is not about the lambs that the Dykes family are awaiting. Hamish Dykes was born on this 1,000 acre farm nestled at the foot of the Pentland Hills, and with his wife Susie, who has worked on the farm with her husband for more than 10 years, and Hamish’s father John, who for the last decade has lived in a house just across the main road at the bottom of the farm road – a nod to what might yet become a retirement – the Dykes know their way round a lambing. It’s the arrival of the BBC that’s causing the consternation.
South Slipperfield is the location for this year’s Lambing Live, the BBC programme which will be broadcast live from the farm for five nights from tomorrow. Presented by Kate Humble and Adam Henson and following on from the first two series made in South Wales in 2010 and Cumbria in 2011, South Slipperfield will provide a window into farming life in the UK and what it’s really like for people who make their living from the land at their busiest time of year.
Granted, Lambing Live is not Big Brother. There’s no diary room, no choreographed spats or impossible tasks. But the Dykes will be, at the busiest and most unpredictable time of their year, filmed and watched by not only the uneducated who just think that lambs are cute, but also by plenty of other farmers eager to see how someone else runs their business.
“Initially, we felt a bit surprised about how popular the programme is within the farming community,” says Hamish, describing the excitement when Kate Humble was spotted at last September’s Kelso tup sales, when filming for the series began, “but then when you think about it, it makes sense. What do farmers like doing when they’re out and about? Seeing what other farmers are doing.”
Hamish knows that every farm probably has its own way of running a lambing. Some, he says, probably do it in almost complete reverse to how it’s done at South Slipperfield. “They might have their sheep out until right up to lambing time then they’ll bring them inside to lamb them,” he says. “Our sheep have been inside for the past three weeks but they’ll go outside to start lambing. We’ll just bring them in at night so that someone can keep an eye on the ones which are lambing.”
Lambing Live isn’t just about the farm, though, the descending of a large crew from the BBC into this bucolic pocket of the Borders means that Hamish, 42, Susie, who’s the same age, and their two children, Rosie, nine, and Murdo, seven, are about to become reality TV stars. For a modest, mild-mannered farming couple, it’s a daunting prospect. As well as expecting the arrival of 1,500 lambs over the course of the month of lambing, as well as undertaking this year’s event for the first year without any full-time assistance, the Dykes will also be managing their way around four camera crews who will be on the farm to capture every moment of what happens. You can’t help but wonder what made them want to do it?
“There were some e-mails flying around,” says Hamish. “The first one I saw was from the NFU, it said that the BBC were looking for a host family for Lambing Live in Scotland. Very much tongue in cheek I forwarded it to Susie with the message ‘who’s going to want to do that?’”
His wife rolls her eyes. “Delete,” she says.
They might not have thought much of it at first, but then Hamish received a phonecall from the BBC asking to come and meet them since four different people had recommended them as the ideal family for this year’s series. The Dykes are a three-generation sheep farming dynasty. John Dykes arrived at Slipperfield in 1967. His family was originally from Lanarkshire, but John’s father had been farming in East Lothian until John moved with his new wife, Kate, to South Slipperfield, just next to West Linton. The farm is roughly 1,000 acres of mixed hill and upland ground. It ranges from 500 to 1,500 feet at the summit of Mendick Hill with the farm steading sitting somewhere in the middle. The house, white walls glinting in the sunlight has grown with the families it’s housed, an extension on the side, a conservatory on the front. Hamish and Susie’s children attend the same village school where he and his younger brother once went. If you’re looking for a snapshot of what a Scottish farming family are, you don’t get much more picture perfect than the Dykes.
“Once we’d said we’d do it, we started to realise it’s quite a responsibility to portray it,” says Hamish. “Well, we just have to portray it the way it is, but for the farming community we have a responsibility to put it across in a true light. Rather than just looking over the fence or seeing lovely lambs being born on telly they’re hopefully going to see the upsides and the downsides of farming.”
In Scotland the sight of sheep is as common as that of heather on the hills. There are nearly eight million of them across the country. The UK has a breeding flock of more than 15 million ewes, that’s more than a quarter of the total EU breeding flock. In Scotland we have more than a fifth of them; sheep farming here is big business. But for most of us, the families whose livelihoods depend on these docile animals are a mystery.
Driving along the A702 in the shadow of the Pentlands, it’s a perfect spring day. The sky is bright blue, the sun picking out the colours of the fields, the signs of new growth after a long, grey winter. In a distant field a flock of sheep is split in two as two black dots weave around, sheep dogs doing their work. The city may only be a few miles behind, but with the hills towering to one side and the rolling pasture as far as the eye can see, this is the countryside. Edinburgh is hardly a throbbing metropolis but still the contrast is as clear as the spring daylight – South Slipperfield may be an easy commute from the city, but out here there is a different way of life.
Across the road from the main farm, John Dykes stands in his shed. His small flock of pedigree sheep, Bluefaced Leicesters which are crossed with other native breeds to produce mule ewes, lie in hay-lined pens, their bellies distended with the lambs which will soon be born. Some are carrying two, some three, a few have four lambs and one who looks as broad as she’s long, her jaw moving rhythmically as she chews, has five lambs inside her. In the top pen, hidden behind a fold of ewes who watch us warily, the first of this year’s lambs has arrived. Wobbly on legs that look too long for its body, it stays close to its mother and watches the photographer scrabbling about with barely concealed panic. The lambs of South Slipperfield are going to have a lot to contend with in the next few weeks.
Outside the shed, in the field behind the house John Dykes and his wife, Kate, moved to in 2004, two Highland ponies amble up to see what food John has for them. As well as sheep and cattle, the couple have long bred ponies, which are sold all over the UK and further afield. John stands, flanked by the two young horses, as the photographer lies down on the ground in front of them, trying to coordinate which way their heads might next move. “Health and safety would have a field day with this,” says John laconically, “lying on the ground right in front of two horses.” He shakes his head, smiling.
Hamish originally thought that his parents would object to the notion of an entire BBC crew pitching up on the farm at the busiest time of year but it’s clear that John is relishing the interest in what’s been his life’s work. At 73, after a career which has included several high-profile agricultural positions with livestock auctioneers Lawrie and Symington, as chairman of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland and with close involvement with the British Simmental Cattle Society, John’s off-farm commitments are much less now and he remains very involved in how South Slipperfield runs. The process of passing the baton from one generation to the next is not a fast one and with no full-time employees to assist with the running of the farm, everyone needs to muck in.
“My dad is working a lot more on the farm now than he’s done for maybe 10 or 15 years because his other commitments have dropped down,” says Hamish. “At the age of 73, he always said he wanted to be in the position to choose what he does in a day rather than having to, but, in all honesty, he’s fitter now than he was six months ago. His interests are farm-related so if he wasn’t doing this I don’t know what he would be doing.”
The process of being filmed and interviewed has, Hamish says, made him reflect on what he does for a living and why. Being asked the simplest questions about daily life on the farm has given him the chance to think about the life he was born into. I wonder was it always clear that he would one day take over the running of the farm?
“I don’t know if I thought about it,” he says. “Growing up I always liked doing things on the farm. I was always doing stuff in the shed, building things with wood. I was more technically-minded than academic.” Then, when he was at boarding school, he says, he just wanted to be at home, whereas his younger brother was, he says, keener to go travelling and try different things. “Whether it was a keenness to come back to the farm or a narrow-mindedness it always seemed I was keen to get into this. The more time you’re away the more you appreciate what you’ve got.”
Sitting in the sunny conservatory, boots kicked off at the door, it’s clear that Hamish loves this place and what he does. But he’s not blind to the challenges.
“There are times when you don’t like it,” he says, “but there are other times you just love it. Sometimes the best and worst parts of the job are the same thing. You walk out your front door in the morning and you’re at your work, this is what you do. That can be the best part about this life. But then sometimes the worst part of the job is that you walk out your door and you’re at your work. The pluses and minuses sometimes come from the same direction.”
But farming is a vocation, not a job. Hamish can’t imagine sitting in a car for an hour in the morning. He’s also knows that not having a set daily routine is a bonus. “But every day, we’re at work, even on a beautiful sunny Sunday. It requires self-discipline to say I’ve done what I need to do so now I’m going to enjoy my day.”
How much work is it? Is it really crack of dawn until darkness falls seven days a week?
“It becomes a little bit of a grey area because a working hour and a leisure hour can sometimes be the same thing. Sometimes what you’re doing is half work and half enjoyment. People think farmers get up early. But people who have to commute to work, they’re probably up a lot sharper than we are.”
The press release for this third series of Lambing Live ramps up the tension with talk of “life and death” drama. It’s hard to imagine Hamish and Susie falling in with the hyperbole, they’re too matter of fact, too down to earth, the very opposite of dramatic. They also know that no one can really know how this lambing is going to run – it could be straightforward, or it could be a serious challenge. In 2010, when a heavy snowfall at the very wrong moment left many of their sheep with their new lambs out on the hills buried in several feet of snow, their low-key delivery only adds to the sense of how potentially horrific the consequences might have been.
“It wasn’t in drifts, it was two feet of snow everywhere,” says Hamish. “We were slap bang in the middle of lambing and a lot of other people were too. We had a really tough spell.”
For two days, the snow kept the Dykes home bound. The porch door which is at this moment propped open by one of Hamish’s New Zealand Huntaway sheep dogs sunning himself, was blocked shut with snow. It’s fair to say that that they thought the worst had happened. “We had 400 lambs outside with their mothers and for two days we just thought there’s no way they’re going survive,” he says. “But out of the 400 we lost 98, which is a lot but I didn’t see why they shouldn’t all be dead.”
Hamish used a forklift to put out salt to create paths over which they could travel. Then they’d look for signs of life and dig. “A sheep would come up out of the snow and there would be two lambs lying there happy as kings because she had just lain over them. The sun was shining even though there was snow everywhere and they’d just stretch and start to feed. It was brutal but you just couldn’t help but respect the sheep for what they’d been through. I remember digging a pair of lambs out of a hole where they’d been without their mother. They went on and found their mother – they were only about three days old.”
Looking across the sun-drenched fields in front of the house, the kids swinging on a rope strung in a tree, it’s hard to imagine that weather being even remotely possible. But, what farmers know better than anything, is that you never know what might happen.
“If we have a week like this while they’re filming,” Susie says, squinting into the sun, “it will paint an extremely rosy picture. But we’ve had our share of horrendous weather during lambings.
“It’d probably make pretty good viewing watching us dig lambs out of snow drifts. Gripping stuff, but it’s obviously not the way we want it to happen.” The couple smile and shrug. They know there’s just no way to predict. It should make for interesting viewing.
Lambing Live begins with a special documentary – Lambing Live: Farming Families – tomorrow at 8pm on BBC2 and will then be nightly from Tuesday to Friday at 8pm on BBC2.