'To look at me, you wouldn't think I could tip a sheep'

18th August 2006 at 01:00
Faye Marshall, 28

Day job: primary school supply teacher in Burton-upon-Stather, North Lincolnshire

Other life: shepherdess

"Anybody who knows me is aware that I'm sheep mad. Just look at my vast collection of sheep-related objects; I own sheep socks, sheep ornaments, stuffed sheep, a sheep painting. I talk about sheep so much it drives my friends crackers. And yes, I keep my own flock of 11 black Hebrideans. I can't help it; I'm obsessed.

It began when I was taking a degree in environmental science at York St John college, in York. I had a work placement at a nearby nature reserve, and ended up working with a flock of 400 sheep that they have there, mainly holding the heads during shearing. I'd never really thought about sheep before, but there was an immediate spark. I fell in love with them, especially the lambs: they were so cute. Then I had an idea. I had a largish garden. I loved sheep. Why not get some lambs, and hand rear them?

On March 17 2000, I brought Harry home from the nature reserve in my Ford Fiesta. He sat on my lap on the way to my house (I wasn't driving) and spent the first night in my living room. A week later came George. During the first eight weeks, I bottle-fed them with powdered milk every four hours. I had to get up in the middle of the night to do it. As they grew, they started eating the grass in the garden. Soon it was all gone. I began to borrow the gardens of friends, one after the other. But there are only so many gardens you can go through like this.

I wanted more sheep, but I lacked the land to sustain them. One evening at the pub I discovered a couple of friends with a countryside stewardship; this is where you get a grant from the Government for using land that you own as grazing. It was perfect; my friends needed sheep, and I needed grass. We struck a deal. So now, as well as George (Harry sadly died) I have Elizabeth, Brian, Frankie, Mary, Nancy, Hudson, Derek, Catherine, Sheena and Audrey.

Part of the deal with my friends is that I look after the sheep myself, which suits me fine. I spend about 20 minutes with them every evening - they graze just a few minutes drive from my home - checking their feet and making sure they've got water. We've just had shearing time, which is when it all gets quite physical. You have to grab the sheep and tip it up, and start shearing its belly. To look at me, you wouldn't think I could tip a sheep, but it's all in the technique and timing. The wool I get isn't really worth anything; there's no demand for black wool because you can't dye it.

All 11 of my sheep have distinct personalities. I can't understand people who say they all look the same. First, there's clear social interaction within the flock. George and Frankie are mates; if one goes off the other starts to look for him. The older males have fights over who is in charge; they head-butt each other and I shout, "Stop it!" My relationship with the sheep is so important to me; after a hard day at school I can visit the flock and they'll be pleased to see me. Mary is the friendliest: she'll always come up and say hello. But George and I seem to have drifted apart.

Friends and family are used to my obsession now. Still, sometimes my partner will groan when I mention the flock, and ask, "Can't we have a sheep free day?" During my PGCE, I was advised not to mention my sheep during job interviews. They thought it would go against me for some reason, but I ignored the advice and my interviewers always seemed interested. If I had the land, my ideal flock size would be around 30. But now that I've just finished my NQT year and started as a supply teacher, I'm not keen to have any new lambs; I don't think it will go down well if I have to rush off every four hours to feed them. A good job, then, that all my boys have been castrated.

Being a shepherdess brings an added dimension to my teaching. At my NQT school - New Holland primary in Barrow-upon-Humber - I took the children on a field trip to a farm. Suddenly they were all saying, "Look, sheep! Miss Marshall's favourite animal!" I was surprised: I didn't think I'd mentioned my sheep that much."

Faye Marshall was talking to David Mattin

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