From hairstylist to The Chief Shepherdess

An image of Zoe Coalville sherperdhess feeding her sheep on her farm

Instagram queen Zoë Colville, otherwise known as @thechiefshepherdess, chats to Student & Young Farmer editor Beth Wright about her move from London salons to shepherdess and, now, published author.

First-generation farmer Zoë and her partner Chris rent land across Kent, farming sheep, cattle, and pygmy goats. The couple started with 32 pregnant ewes and now lamb some 500 breeding ewes over 100 acres near Maidstone.

“It’s not been very conventional, but we’ve managed to make it work,” Zoë told Student Farmer, ahead of the launch of her book, The Chief Shepherdess: Lessons in Life, Love and Farming.

Having never considered a career in farming, Zoë has since learned to butcher by watching videos on YouTube during one of the Covid lockdowns. The couple now sell their meat online via their shop, The Little Farm Fridge.

“We were staying in a caravan on the farm during lambing and we were brainstorming and it got to the point we were like, ‘it’s now or never, we need to strike while the iron is hot’,” she said. “So we took out a loan, went to our landlady and said ‘can we put a unit in’, brought a second-hand mobile office and decked it all out with the hygiene boards and got all of our certifications.

“Chris and I aren’t scared to have a go at things because, at the end of the day, what are you going to lose, money? I know money is very important, especially when you don’t have it, but no-one is going to die. I think, because we’re dealing with life and death all the time on the farm, you’re actually not scared of failing because if no-one’s going to die when you fail it’s not as bad as situations you have been in.”

Salon to shepherdess

“I feel passionately that young people now have every opportunity, and they should utilise it to make sure it’s definitely what they want to do.”

Zoë Colville

After Chris brought the first ewes, Zoë began spending weekends and holidays in Kent with Chris, who spent some of his childhood on a farm but was working as a plumber when the pair met. But she said it was the passing of her father that made her embrace farming fully.

“Farming became real, it balanced me out,” she explained. “I felt really heavy after dad died. It was a sadness I’d never had before but getting into a routine where you get up when the sun comes up and finish work when it goes dark, it really it sorted me out.”

While she acknowledges farming may appear like a strange choice for someone who is grieving – threaded through as it is with death – she said: “The thing with farming is death and sadness is always balanced out with new life and growth and beautiful sunrises, whereas in human life it’s hard to find those things. They don’t stare at you straight in the face.”

As to how her shepherdess life contrasts to the salon, the biggest difference is being unable to plan ahead.

“My old life was literally planned to within an inch of its life,” she said, adding her appointments would be booked in weeks in advance with her only stress being turning clients around on time.

The change was a lot to get used to at first. “It was quite a hard transition. I had three diaries and it used to drive Chris crazy because I’d be like, ‘what are we doing tomorrow’ and he’d be like, ‘this, this and this but it might change for this and this’ and I couldn’t understand. It used to drive him mental.”


Rollercoaster moments

As with any new career, the transition has had its ups and downs.

Probably the most difficult to deal with is the lack of control over the weather. “It’s when things are completely out of your control and you have to try and claw back,” she said, using the 2020 drought as an example. “We had to sell about 300 of our breeding ewes during that because we just didn’t have the grass and that cut really deep because it wasn’t anything that we’d done. That’s probably the hardest thing, being under Mother Nature’s thumb.”

Among the highs, she laughed, is surviving in a functional relationship with Chris. “It’s not a normal business we’re running, it’s high stress and intense 365 days a year. The fact we still go to bed and don’t want to rip each other’s throats out, that’s a real high for me.”

There’s also the growth from year to year: “The first year I lambed I wasn’t comfortable skinning a lamb to adopt it on to another one, whereas the year after I found the confidence to do it.”

Be sure

For anyone new to or wanting to join the industry, Zoë said be sure before committing to it.

“There are so many opportunities now to try before you buy. We’re at a time where if you type in ‘shepherdess’ on Instagram there are 100 accounts you can contact,” she said.

“I feel passionately that young people now have every opportunity, and they should utilise it to make sure it’s definitely what they want to do.”

She added we’re at a “really exciting time for farming”, pointing to Farmer Will appearing on Love Island and the industry gathering momentum on social media.

“Growing up, the only thing I knew about farming was foot and mouth disease, bird flu and swine flu. But now if someone’s farming video is coming up in some 15-year-old’s feed full of Kylie Jenner and lip plumpers, that’s amazing.

“Nowadays, you don’t have to have a dad that works on a dairy farm or a grandad that’s a pig farmer. You don’t need to have those things now and it’s really exciting.”

Another must is a sense of humour. “You will not survive without one,” Zoë said, adding it needs to be a bit of a dark one at times. “You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Not at the situation, because some of them are horrendous, but you have to be able to see the light in some really dark situations.”

It’s the toll farming can take on your mental health that makes Zoë reiterate the importance of being sure this is the industry for you before you commit.

She explained the darkness of long winters, bad weather, and financial stresses can be drowning, adding mental health is a “huge thing”.

“I feel like I’ve lost loads of friends because I can’t keep up the friendship because I’m so tired, and that can be quite isolating. I think that’s why I enjoy and kept up the social media so much, because I’ve gone from being surrounded by girls 24/7 and having really deep, meaningful conversations and friendships to it literally being me and Chris all day every day.

“That’s why you have to be so certain before you fully dive into a career in farming,” she said.

Farming for the future

With the titles of farmer, butcher, and now published author under her belt, Zoë hopes to buy or rent a farm in the future where she can offer open days to anyone interested in getting into farming and to primary schools.

“That’s what I really want to do. I love kids and love working with kids and would love to be able to offer that.”

Also on the to-do list is to turn The Little Farm Fridge into a collective, offering milk, cream and cheese from local dairy farmers.

“Initially, we were worried people wouldn’t want to buy meat from the field in front of their house but it’s not the case at all. People want to be connected and know the story behind it and learn where it came from and I’d love to open that up a bit more.”

'The Chief Sheperdess: Lessons in Life, Love and Farming' by Zoe Colville is out now in hardback and is available from all High Street and online book shops.

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