Obituary: Shirley Harrison, farmer.
Born: 31 August, 1946, in Ewell, Surrey. Died: 27 July, 2012 in Daviot, Aberdeenshire, aged 65
She stood five feet – in her heels – and was physically a wisp of a woman but diminutive farmer Shirley Harrison more than made up for it in grit and determination.
She had bucket-loads of both and was the embodiment of feisty: an adventurer who flew light aircraft, sailed the Atlantic from Lagos to Rio, drove rally cars and single-handedly managed her Aberdeenshire farm where she bred Aberdeen Angus cattle and conducted Scotland’s first trial and harvest of genetically modified crops.
Gutsy and fiery, she cared passionately about world hunger and, having witnessed starvation while living in Africa, believed that GM crops could potentially make a difference. However, the trial was beset by protests and attracted a stream of media coverage, leading to Harrison, who patrolled her land with a shotgun, losing her weapons licence for a time.
But despite protesters damaging some of the plot, she battled on, succeeded in harvesting the oilseed rape and embarked on further trials, convinced that what she was doing was right.
Yet farming was not a career she had set out to pursue. She began her working life as a secretary in the more rarefied atmosphere of the British High Commission in Lagos.
The daughter of businessman John Hoof and his wife Stevie, she was born in Ewell, Surrey and educated at Ashtead’s Parsons Mead School, where she was a boarder. Her father was managing director of a company in Nigeria and she joined her parents there when she was 18, having completed a secretarial course in Tunbridge Wells.
She then spent about three years at the High Commission before marrying quantity surveyor Derek Hurlstone-Jones when she was 22.
The couple lived in Lagos for a few years before moving to South Africa, where they bought a farm at Wakkerstroom, in the Transvaal. By this time she was working in the Nederland Bank but gave it up to concentrate fully on farming when they bought a larger property outside Pietermaritzburg.
During her time in Lagos she had qualified as a pilot and in South Africa the couple had their own light plane. She thought nothing of taking off to fly hundreds of miles, once nipping to Ghana to collect a friend from America whose Pan Am plane had been refused entry to Nigeria.
However, she ran into a little trouble when she touched down in Ghana. The capital, Accra, was in the hands of soldiers who met her with guns and, on seeing this slight girlish figure, demanded to know where the pilot was.
“I’m the pilot,” she told the incredulous troops who believed she was a child. When she finally convinced them she had actually piloted the aircraft, they were full of admiration for the “child”, then a grown woman in her 20s, and couldn’t do enough for her, escorting her back to the plane with her passenger.
In addition to flying, she also shared her husband’s love of rally driving, taking part in numerous races. But her sense of adventure didn’t stop there. While they were living in Nigeria she was one of a crew of four who sailed a small yacht from Lagos to Rio, stopping off on Ascension Island where they ended up running a marathon with locals. Many years later she crewed on a tall ship recreating Captain Cook’s Plymouth to Sydney voyage.
Meanwhile, on the farm in South Africa she became interested in Aberdeen Angus cattle and qualified as a judge of the breed there. She remained in South Africa until her marriage foundered and returned to England in 1982 following her divorce.
Back home she decided to take a yachting course to gain a sailing qualification and met her second husband, Derek Harrison, when he contacted the training school looking for a crew member.
A forestry consultant living in Sutherland, he had a boat moored at Plockton and she volunteered to go north for the trip. She returned at his request a few months later and the couple married in 1988, living at Ardgay, where he had a smallholding and she was able to continue her farming interest.
They also had a plot of land in the Cayman Islands and had planned to buy a large yacht when Derek retired and spend the rest of their lives sailing the world. However, their happiness was short lived. They were married for only a few years when he died of leukaemia.
She decided to continue farming and bought the 405-acre farm near Daviot, outside Inverurie, in the Aberdeenshire countryside that reminded her of the landscape of South Africa’s Natal area where she had lived years before.
There she bred Aberdeen Angus cattle and in 2000 became a pioneer of Scotland’s GM crop trials, the only woman farmer participating in them in Britain. She had always been interested in biomedical companies and felt volunteering for the initiative was a natural progression. But it took her into the eye of a political and environmental storm.
Undaunted by protests, she spent six months making an audio diary, chronicling her experiences for Radio 4 in It’s My Story – Trial By GM, gave talks locally and at Oxford University and was invited to international speaking engagements. She frequently confronted her critics, and invited one of the harshest, the Soil Association, to her farm, where she escorted its director round her property.
Although she welcomed debate, after her crops were damaged in 2002 she was infuriated at the prospect of the damage being filmed and, after an angry phone call to a BBC journalist and an alleged threat to use her guns, police revoked her firearms certificate. The weapons were later returned but she believed she had been treated unfairly.
Passionate about everything she did, she had a tremendous sense of humour and once emerged for a farming photo shoot wearing a backless evening dress and posed mischievously on her tractor.
She was also fanatical about tidiness and the farm was always extraordinarily neat and clean. Visitors knew they would not require their Wellington boots as there was never any muck on the property. She even collected up and returned a visiting lorry driver’s discarded cigarette butts saying: “I think these belong to you.”
She had planned to retire at 70 but fell ill a couple of years ago and was diagnosed with cancer. Typically, she vowed to fight it and took part in a German drug trial, convinced she could beat the disease. She soldiered on with stoicism, rising to feed the cattle, returning to bed, then working in the afternoon before going back to bed again. Finally, she was forced to sell the farm and her herd of Aberdeen Angus, weeping buckets at the mart as they went through the rings.
Latterly she was cared for by her father, who survives her, and for whom she had a house built near her farm after he was widowed nine years ago.
“She was quite a girl,” he said. “If she went for something it was 100 per cent, no half measures and she pulled out all the stops. She took everything in her stride.”
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