The Horse Whisperer: Victoria Smith

It was a magical evening when I met Victoria, there was a huge storm (in June) with roads quickly flooding, a leaden sky and the trees were a dark forbidding green. We were both ridiculously late and a bit jittery due to the lightening bouncing around but considering all this, meeting Victoria was a very moving experience.

She is mostly legs and is ridiculously good looking, even though she does not see this! There is this huge presence she has around her that makes everyone listen and most importantly the animals can feel this. Victoria showed me the process of joining up which is how she manages to get the horse to respond to her. It was beautiful to watch and with the rain thundering down on the roof of the barn, it made it all the more atmospheric. It is clear that this is not a ‘job’ you learn, you have to be a natural. Victoria has no fear with horses and I was in awe of the way she understood their needs. I will be completing two images of her for Hill Top and Acorn Bank and I can not wait! She is a very warm person and an incredible subject to draw.

Sarah Lunn: The Vicar who breeds Grey Faced Dartmoors, Somali Cats, Geese, Ducks and hens!

Sarah has a menagerie of animals and this appeals, as one of my goals is to also have an eclectic mix at some point! She is a fascinating women, works all the time, running many parishes in the Eden Valley and also looking after these creatures. She tells me that they make her feel peaceful, as well as helping her integrate into the community. Because she can talk about sheep to farmers, they trust her and she is obviously knowledgeable about the different breeds and how to care for animals.

She mentions almost apologetically, that it is all a bit eccentric and I tell her every lady I have met has said the same. None of my participants seem eccentric, odd or mad, they just appear very focused on the particular animals they have chosen to champion and that is probably why they are so successful. The ladies have all been rather humble, not wanting to appear as if they are ‘showing off’ about what they do, they are all wanting to promote the wellbeing of their animals. This could be a whole new blog post!

Back to Sarah, I follow her around the house where she is rearing chicks from eggs she has had in incubators and there are Somali kittens squeaking around. We go outside to a large field area where she keeps many birds (geese, ducks and hens) amongst the most cuddly sheep in the world – Grey Faced Dartmoors. They adore Sarah and run up to her, like dogs more than sheep! Sarah is a fascinating women and I am very much looking forward to drawing her and the team.

Claire Cornish: Wild Hay Meadows

Claire works for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, specialising in restoring wild hay meadows. She helps to create diverse natural meadows in order to help pollenate plants, encourage insects, birds and mammals and encourage traditional farming methods.

Claire trained as an artist then a gardener down south before coming up north to work with CWT. I met her on a hot sunny day at my parents house. We met there as my dad encourages wildflowers and different grasses to grow in the garden so it felt lovely using where I grew up as a backdrop for the photos and conversation.

She explained to me the importance of cutting grasses later which help invertebrates and birds and the cultural significance of hay meadows to village life. Claire works with traditional hill farmers, small holders and the public to encourage these essential but disappearing areas that are so important to the environment.

If we did not have amazing people like Claire, then our countryside would suffer dramatically. There are are many dangers to bees and other insects who are needed for pollination and a healthier planet. The seriousness of these creatures disappearing has been proven over and over again by scientists, yet they face enormous danger from loss of habitat, pollution and pesticides.


The Wool Clip: Wonderful Women Working with Wool

Wool Clip get things done and that is what I admire most about them. They have set up a gorgeous shop in Caldbeck which is open 7 days a week and the members take it in turns to be there. Items for sale are wool based, exceptionally good quality and unique. They also help run Woolfest which is on in June.

4 of the members came to Acorn Bank to meet and discuss their collective with the lure of cake and tea. Emma Redfern makes beautiful bags from tweed, Debbie Lucas is a felt maker and has created one of the most awesome felt sheep heads I have ever seen, Jean Wildish makes lots of wonderful quirky one offs and Alice Underwood who I have interviewed before, makes many lovely items and kits for knitting.

Sitting around chatting to these ladies talk shop about their group gave me insight into how it all runs, they support each other and have such a passion for their craft. I am looking forward to drawing a group portrait and hope to get the warmth and chatter in the drawing.

Tracy Hayes: Playing Outdoors

I met Tracy who is a volunteer at Acorn Bank, during Newt Day, which is held annually in the garden. She struck me as being warm, passionate and knowledgable about wildlife and the outdoors.

Tracy is a PhD student at The University of Cumbria studying outdoor learning. She has won awards including the Reflective Essay Postgraduate Prize for 2015 by The Higher Education Research Group (HERG) in association with the RGS-IBG annual international conference and the Vice Chancellor’s Excellence Award for Early Career Researcher at her university, She has a wonderful straight forward approach to research and her subject.

During our meeting, we spoke about how Beatrix Potter did not hide the realities of nature from children, conveying quite straightforwardly, the perils animals endure. The dumbing down of books such as Watership Down has been discussed in the media quite recently. We were both of the opinion that children become quite detached from nature with this approach.

Tracy also spoke about another key issue in the media recently which is the rewilding debate, a hot subject here in Cumbria. There are groups who are keen to bring back an environment, which was here thousands of years ago. Quite understandably, most farmers are very anti rewilding because it would damage the structure of the commons and be dangerous for their sheep/ lambs due to the introduction of wolves. Tracy adores wolves but her view on it is that the Lake District is so small, it would not be possible, due to the clear lack of space. I think she echoes many peoples views here, but there is an awful lot of respect for farmers here and many farmers are trying hard to bring back organic practices and are passionate about helping the environment.

It was wonderful to meet Tracy, she must inspire many to enjoy the outdoors, I certainly found her enthusiasm infectious.



Julie Bailey: Nuts about Red Squirrels

As soon as I was in contact with Julie, I knew she would be a joy to work with on this project, I just didn’t expect her to be as great! My day with The Red Squirrel Lady was fun, as well as being very informative and fascinating.

It wasn’t hard to spot her beautiful railway cottage. It sits next to the Settle to Carlisle railway line, amongst some pretty trees. It looked like it was straight out of a children’s book. I was greeted by an array of ornamental red squirrels, some in the garden and others peering out at me through the window. Julie’s house is filled with red squirrel everything. There are a few fish however and a rather lovable Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Pearla, oh and a few humans but even the wood burner has a red squirrel on it. I was surprised that their house hadn’t had a red tail put on it, but there is time.

We talked at length about red squirrels, she herself humanely ‘culls’ grey squirrels. Some of you may not like this, but when you see the photos of the horrific disease that the greys spread to the reds, you will see why. The devastating disease, Squirrel Pox Virus Disease (which the greys carry with no ill effects to themselves) causes a slow painful death over approximately 15 days for our red squirrels. I hadn’t realised this, I thought greys just bullied the reds out, but it is far worse. The greys were brought in just a few hundred years ago and are responsible for the demise of the native red population. Julie and an amy of rangers, volunteers, landowners and general public are dedicated to saving the red species and the way they do it is fascinating and very organised. Sightings of greys and reds are reported, the greys are hunted down which will hopefully stop the disease spreading and all sightings/culls are vigorously recorded on standardised spread sheets. Interestingly Julie and her family eat the grey squirrel meat, their tails are used for fishing fly’s and their pelts are piling up to be made into wearable items. The disease is in no way harmful to humans. At least the culling of the greys is not wasted.

Julie is an epic very organised Volunteer, working all hours co-ordinating all things squirrelly. She is very personable and warm, making her approachable to everyone. I am very much looking forward to drawing her portrait.

If you would like to find out more please follow these links
Please report any sightings of grey squirrels or sickly red squirrels.


Buzzy Bees on Cleator Moor: Val Sullivan

On Tuesday, I made my way to Cleator Moor across the top end of the Lake District. The clouds zoomed across the peaks, which were freshly covered with snow, with glimpses of clear blue sky, hinting of a beautiful day ahead. It is a part of the lakes fairly untouched with tourists. I never look up too much of where I am going, as I like the surprise of arriving somewhere without having formed an opinion of it from photos online or Google Maps. As I neared Val’s house, I came across the gorgeous Ennerdale Water, overlooked by orange bracken covered mountains.

I get a little nervous before I meet participants, but I needn’t have worried, as I was met by friendly smiles from Val, who lives on an old farm, with stunning views of the mountains and lovely neat plots of land where there are sheep, vegetables growing and of course, bee hives. There was an order and neatness to the farm. After a long chat about honey bees, Val explained her background which at first, was an interest in zoology, then she became a GP. I think this may help with lambing! It also explained the snippets of science which popped into conversation every now and then. I learnt a lot about honey bees and the threat they face from other bee species. It was interesting to hear that many farmers used to keep their own honey bees on the farm and now so few do. I recorded Val for the exhibition as she was full of interesting information which is too much to put in here, but I will be disseminating the information at the show and online, over time.

Val drove me to Westlakes Science & Technology Park, in Whitehaven to see the fantastic Apiary, which is a National Lottery funded project aimed at educating children and adults about bees. It is a tranquil place, a haven for staff working in the science park and something Val is so proud to have built. Bees in urban spaces have fascinated me, I think people like that feeling of busy nature and that little area of an oasis.

When we returned, Val put me in a rather fetching bee suit so we could have a peak at her own honey bees. We looked a bit like baddies from a James Bond film, working with a nuclear reactor, which made me smile as we were just down the road from Sellafield! I wasn’t as nervous as I probably should be, as I was concentrating so much on recording Val and photographing the event. It was only when the bees started buzzing out and landing on me, that I realised how careful you had to be. The smoke is used to calm the bees and again, I felt I was in a science experiment! It was wonderful and the honey they produce is simply delicious – I have been addicted to it all week.

It was a super day, Val was so wonderfully generous with her time, explaining to a complete amateur like me, the importance of honey bees. I left feeling quite humbled because I am meeting some very intelligent and generous people on this trip, and Val is definitely one of those.

If you would like to find out moor about Cumbria Beekeepers Association please click here.

Also remember if you see a bee that needs a bit of help, don’t give them honey (it can spread disease), give them a little melted sugar!

The Rare Breed and Manx Loaghtan Enthusiast: Alice Underwood

As soon as Alice wrote to me about her Manx Loaghtans I was excited to meet her and these woolly beauties! I met Alice at her gorgeous mill in Cliburn near Penrith this week. She moved up from Sheffield a few years ago and since then has been a busy member of the Woolclip group alongside being an active member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. She also co-runs runs Sheepfold which sells fantastic knitting kits.

Alice and I chatted about the UK wool industry and her passion for the importance of rare breeds. She has had her Manx Loaghtans for less than a year and three ewes are about to lamb which she is very visibly excited about! After our chat, which was recorded and will be made available in future months, we went outside to see her animals.

What struck me about this lovely smallholding was that it reminded me of the layout of a 1980s Britains farm set I used to play with (I didn’t like dolls and nor did Alice, I used to remodel them and she used to bury them). It is probably because of the fences and the order of things. It is what a lot of people dream of, but the reality of it is it is pretty hard work. We met the pregnant ewes first and as we sat on the ground, they came right up. I was introduced to the other ladies which Alice treats like pets (I am told though that alongside their wool, they may be eaten in future). After this, I met one of the loves of my life, a wether (male castrated sheep) called Chops who keeps the tup, Bruno, company when he is on his own. He has the most fabulous black locks and prances around like something crossed between a dandy/ old rock band member. He is not a Manx Loaghtan but a Boreray, if you are wondering why he looks so different to the others! If Alice hadn’t been waving goodbye to me as I left, I may well have hidden him in my car. More on Alice in future and here are some images of my visit. Also do go and visit Woolfest in June, I am told its the place to be!

The Social Media Queen: Hill Top Farm Girl

I recently met up with the lovely Hill Top Farm Girl. She runs a fantastic Instagram account from their beautiful farm in Malham. Her site originally gave me the idea for this project. Malham is a very special place for me too as I grew up near there and my dad was a volunteer park ranger for the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

We met on a gorgeous sunny day and sat in the garden surrounded by pecking chickens, a charming dog called Florrie and the sounds of busy working neighbours. Leigh runs the holiday cottage and the bunk house accommodation on the farm – please follow this link for more information.

The farm is famed for its striking Belted Galloway cattle who are a hardy breed, living well off the nutrient poor soil and causing little harm to the natural environment. The farm works with the National Trust to improve grazing pastures and farm sustainably whilst producing fantastic tasting beef. Leigh has an incredible amount of enthusiasm and knowledge about the breed and the various other animals kept on the farm. These include Bluefaced Leicesters, Swaledales, Wensleydales, Jersey cows and of course a bunch of fiesty hens.

Leigh, like myself, likes the anonymity of Instagram but has kindly let me a draw a picture of her with the menagerie of animals on the farm. I have recorded our conversations which will be available soon. Here are some photos from the day.