“When we struggle we need to tell each other. This is the most important thing I've learnt.”
Ellie is a Dorset NHS professional and farmer. Here, she explains more about the ‘hard but beautiful’ juggling act behind life on a farm and shares how important it is to talk to others if you’re finding life difficult.
My name is Ellie Sturrock. I run a team of fabulous therapists offering treatment for common mental health problems like depression and anxiety, but I’m also a shepherd and farmer with my husband, who works full time on our farm in mid-Dorset.
I'm not from a family of farmers – in fact my paternal family were Naval, so not a blade of grass in sight! As a child, though, I read wonderful children’s stories about the countryside. As soon as I could I moved to various cottages and lived a fairly wild existence. I took up riding and bought a horse (or three) and spent more and more time outside on horses and bicycles and on farms. My husband, Nick, was a friend of a friend and we rode at his farm and my horses lived there, and I soon followed!
The farming life
Nick has been looking after the land and the animals on it all his life. It’s a hard life but beautiful too. Way before rewilding, Nick was encouraging a combination of cultivating nature as well as the sheep. We gather wildflower seeds and disperse them and plant trees in hedgerows and field borders, always minimising cutting, spraying and ploughing. This was done both for the benefit of the land but also to save money.
The work as we get older is harder. It’s so much more difficult to catch a sheep in a large field to check its feet or pull off a long bit of bramble! I'm also diabetic and when I’m going low I'm really no help at all, weak and wobbly and confused.
The farming population is aging, so we’re delighted when we go up to market and see younger couples and more women driving their sheep up. It’s hard for people to get started, though. Land is expensive and small young farmers may be running various groups of sheep, say on six separate pieces of tenanted land. With the cost of fuel, this is harder to make work with margins already being low.
Brexit has been a challenge to us, meaning less trade with our neighbours in Europe. They have been our biggest marketplace for many years. Instead, there are more trade deals with bigger countries like Australia, where food production is at a scale that makes their food cheaper than ours will ever be.
There’s no denying it – the work is physically demanding. Fence posts constantly need repositioning as horses lean over and put pressure on the wires. A few cars have crashed through our field margins too. Putting fence posts in on your own in wind and rain is HARD!
Ash dieback is affecting our trees. Some of these are alarmingly close to the barn and will need to be brought down before they come down taking out a barn roof, and it would be awful if this happened during lambing. Luckily my son is a tree surgeon, so he will help.
But you get the picture... all these things add up. It’s a juggling situation with a long list of things that need doing… ALWAYS.
Support for farmers in Dorset
Farming life can be difficult, but thankfully there are such great support systems around like the Farming Community Network (FCN). I’ve been working with Dorset rep Nick Viney, who is developing a small team of farm visitors like vets, feed merchants, vicars, neighbours, police, council workers who may be in contact with farmers and others in the rural population, and can look out for when things aren’t 'quite right'. These 'lookouts' will simply ask ‘Are you ok?’ and then signpost farmers to support like from the FCN or their GP.
There is also free mental health support available locally and nationally to those who need it. Steps 2 Wellbeing, my service, offers talking therapies for free for depression and anxiety. Connection , Dorset’s NHS mental health helpline, is open 24/7, and the Samaritans are always available to anyone who needs a listening ear (see below for details on these and other organisations that can help).
There are also farm walks put on by organisations like the Dorset Wildlife Trust or the NFU, so people can chat and learn more about national incentives.
But when you're working, often alone, how do you hear about these things going on? The rural lookouts will be able to help people access support and find out what’s happening in their area.
Finding a balance
We keep ourselves well by watching the birds flying, picking mushrooms, growing our own food. I still ride and have a horse that I'm going to use to take hay out for the sheep this winter (this is environmentally more sensitive, saves diesel and is just nicer!)
We love people coming and staying on the farm (we have a pop-up campsite with yurts and pitches for tents). Nick’s brother and sister-in-law live over the road so we see them, and my son and his girlfriend live in a caravan on the farm too, so we are very lucky to have family nearby.
Nick rides a motorbike for pleasure and meets friends to play snooker once a week. They've been doing this for almost twenty years now.
Simple things make a difference. We swim in the sea when we can, I swim all year. Our dogs and hens and animals are a source of so much joy and pleasure, the land too, and each other.
Don’t struggle in silence
When we struggle we need to tell each other. This is the most important thing I've learned. Sometimes I stop and weep and Nick says ‘Are you okay? and I say 'No I'm tired and I’m worried about the sheep/dog/barn etc' and he says 'Have you eaten enough?!’ and then he says 'Yes, it’s a tough day today, isn't it?'
This is often enough, but I know that if it gets too much and there are more 'bad days' this winter, I'll be looking to have a weekly talking spot with a therapist or friend. The best thing we can do is talk to each other. Talk to someone and if you are a farmer on your own or even in a family, it may just need to be someone else. Luckily there is so much on offer to us all.
Human beings are brilliant animals in their ability to look after each other and offer an ear or a hand. I love sheep and dogs but humans are way better at caring for others!
Need support? These organisations can help:
Connection 24/7 NHS mental health helpline for Dorset: 0800 652 0190
Samaritans 24/7 helpline: 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Shout 24/7 text service: Text SHOUT to 85258
Farming Community Network: Call 03000 111 999 or email email@example.com
Free face-to-face drop-in sessions - at The Retreat in Bournemouth and Dorchester, and Community Front Rooms at venues across Dorset - times and locations vary, visit Access Mental Health Dorset for more information: www.dorsethealthcare.nhs.uk/access-mental-health
Steps 2 Wellbeing NHS service - self-refer to access support and psychological therapies: www.steps2wellbeing.co.uk/self_referral