As I sat in my car on the side of a road in Snowdonia, checking the full bars of signal on my mobile phone, I changed my top (to look the part) and waited for my interview. I’d had a few interviews over the previous weeks, sent off tens of emails, spent countless hours filling out applications. I didn’t think that this interview would be different from the rest, other than the fact that I was sat in my car, in Wales, in the middle of a footpath repair course. I chatted to a panel of interviewers, and after 20 minutes it was over. “Was that too quick?” I asked myself.
6 days later I was offered the job.
In those first few days, dreaming of our life together on a far away island, my partner Olly and I talked of growing vegetables, getting chickens, kayaking and sheepskin rugs. We’d spent the last year doing long distance between Devon and Italy, and then Spain. I’m pleased to say we have ticked everything off of that initial bucket list!
It wasn’t all rainbows and sprinkles, and I think it’s important not to sugar coat our lives. It’s easy to look at people on social media and envy the lives that they have created and wonder why we are failing in our own lives. It’s imperative that we share the ups and downs, the not so picture-perfect times.
That winter was hard, the expense of moving up here and furnishing a house for the first time took its toll on our single income. Olly struggled with his mental health and wasn’t inspired by any employment he could find here, he missed being in the mountains and doing a job he loved.
I was pinning a lot of my energy and motivation on the arrival of Spring, when volunteers would come and the island would burst into life. We would have friends and family to visit, and get away for trips to the mountains and explore other islands.
Then Covid swept over the world, taking with it my optimism for a change of pace. All of a sudden we were island bound, no one could visit or volunteer and we couldn’t go anywhere.
Our lives were saved by the arrival of 2 tiny lambs into our home. At our first time punding (rounding up the sheep to take the ewes in to lamb in the fields) we had been mulling over the idea of getting orphan lambs, later that day we were offered 2. All of a sudden we were covered in poo and powdered milk, but loving every minute. Along with getting the garden ready and planting as much produce as we could manage, our lockdown was filled with life and growth. Our worries faded away, disappearing like bonfire embers rising into the night sky.
It took me a couple of months of walking around the dyke to really get a feel for what I was up against. It feels a lot longer than 12 miles when tonnes of stone and 200 years of history are involved. Not to mention the survival of the native rare breed of sheep, preservation of the island’s heritage, and a host of interested stakeholders.
I quickly picked up the technique of rebuilding the Sheep Dyke and set to work.
Rebuilding the dyke is like a giant (heavy!) jigsaw puzzle, where most of the jigsaw pieces don’t fit. My grandad used to love a brand of puzzles called Wasgij, where the picture on the front of the box wasn’t of the jigsaw you’d be making, but a scene that was the reaction to it. A behind the camera kind of concept. I often think about those puzzles when looking at the dyke.
Another part of the Sheep Dyke work is making repairs to prevent the dyke collapsing. As they say “a stitch in time saves nine”. This often involves placing stones stood on their ends (like books on a shelf) underneath the stones at the base of the dyke where a gap has appeared. This is likely due to erosion of the sandy soil on which the dyke stands, especially as the sheep love to run alongside the dyke, presumably sheltering from the weather and sea.
Recently I have been training some island residents in dyke building, which has been very enjoyable. It’s really nice to know that there will be a willing team of helpers should sections of dyke collapse this winter. After losing opportunities to train volunteers due to Covid-19 restrictions it’s been a relief to have been given a chance to train and build alongside others.
In the summer I relished the chance to help with shearing the sheep, which is still done using traditional shears. Click clack as everyone set to work on a warm day, hands soft with lanolin, bags quickly fill with all the beautiful natural tones of wool from this rare and wonderful breed. I can’t wait to shear our own sheep next year and knit something that will be very special indeed.
The best part of all of this is the often harsh but beautiful environment that I get to work in. The power of the wind attempts to sweep me off my feet, coating the island in salt. Monstrous waves hurl huge stone boulders and bring down dyke. The power of mother nature cannot be avoided on this small island, being the only rock to stand in the way of weather systems that sweep from the east coast of the US across the Atlantic to Norway.
Without this power huge swaths of seaweed would not appear on its shores, providing the sheep with a haul of nutrient dense feed each winter. Will I ever be able to visit a beach and not miss the sound of hooves scurrying over the pebbles?
Looking ahead to my second year as Sheep Dyke Warden it’s hard to imagine what can be achieved in terms of offering volunteer opportunities, working holiday experiences, and student placements alongside Covid-19 restrictions.
I grow more passionate about these intrepid sheep and their future each day that I spend in their company. The Sheep Dyke is a precious historical structure, which alongside the island’s other historical sites and traditions, must be preserved.
The island feels very different to how it did when I arrived a year ago. Since then 2 families have moved to the island, the most recent of which has prompted the reopening of the island’s school. In addition, 2 couples who worked at the Bird Observatory this year are also set to stay for the foreseeable future, managing to find rental accommodation in a place where housing is hard to come by.
I hope this incomer energy can be harnessed to help build not only the dyke, but a thriving, resilient and sustainable community on North Ronaldsay. We’ll need to save the best of the island’s unique heritage by weaving it into innovative projects.
Top 5 blog posts from the past year
Order the 2021 calendar for my favourite photos from the year!