Jilly Rowden - Local Farmer
Farmer Jilly Rowden’s lively sense of humour and love of animals twinkled as vividly as the dazzling sunshine that glittered over her verdant meadows the morning I dropped by.
With the lambing season at Langwells Farm in full swing, early spring is a busy time for Jilly who not only single-handedly manages the 30-acre farm on the outskirts of Blackawton but also runs a farm shop in Dartmouth’s Old Market.
But hard work doesn’t faze the 48-year-old as she loves nothing more than being in the fresh air with her herd of 60 ewes, clutch of cattle and pen of pigs.
There can’t be many lone females who devote their lives to farming but down-to-earth Jilly was brought up on one and has never craved any other life.
She was born at Lower Norton Farm, a mile outside Dartmouth, where she lived with her late father Will, mother Florence and three brothers Tony, Sid and Mick (who sadly died 20 years ago).
When her dad retired the farm management passed over to her brothers, Jilly said, adding: ‘There wasn’t enough land for all of us and you gave the work to the men.’
Undeterred, Jilly became a relief milker and rented some fields near Diptford where she kept sheep and cattle.
She explained: ‘I just love animals and I always wanted to be outdoors. Dad showed us how to lamb sheep and one day told us how to calf a cow. That was an experience, you thought your arm was going to be sucked off!
‘The other day I was helping a ewe give birth and I felt two legs and two heads. I had to figure out which leg belonged to which lamb and push one back in.
‘Dad taught me all that and I’ve been doing it all my life.’
Taking her animals to slaughter is a necessary part of being a livestock farmer, but it’s the one job Jilly doesn’t relish.
I’m sure most farmers have affection for their animals – but I doubt they give them names. Jilly points out Frilly, Angel, Megan and Abby among her herd of cows. There is also one called Stoney, named after Mr Stoney who sold the beast to Jilly, and two great-granddaughters of the Friesian cow Jilly’s dad gave her years ago.
A frisky little lamb is also jumping around Jilly’s fields named Ginny, after me. I was lucky enough to witness the miracle of Ginny’s entry into the world when I visited Langwells Farm, thanks to Jilly’s swift no-nonsense delivery of the breached youngster.
Jilly’s expert eyes spotted the pregnant ewe pawing at the ground – a sure sign she was nearly ready to give birth. With the skill of an old-hand, Jilly herded the bulging sheep into a vacant pen, wrestled her to the ground and felt for the lamb. She gripped its two legs and was about to pull the creature out from the womb when the ewe decided to stand up.
After a short, sharp curse, Jilly heaved herself up, grabbed the ewe again and managed to plunge her back to the floor.
‘I’ve got to be careful I don’t puncture her womb when I pull the lambs legs out,’ she gasped to me as she felt around inside the ewe once more. Seconds later, with one fluid, deft pull the lamb was out, but it showed no signs of life. Unsure if it was a stillborn, Jilly held the lamb by its hind legs and swung it slowly back and forth in front of her body, like a pendulum.
‘It looks cruel but it’s not,’ she said as she caught the surprised look on my face. As she gently laid the lamb back on the ground it opened its eyes and was immediately cosseted by its mother, who began licking it clean.
‘That’s a good sign, it means the mother is bonding with it,’ Jilly said with a proud maternal smile.
We watched the pair cement their union for a while before Jilly whistled for her cherished, gentle sheepdog Smudge and headed over to check the cows.
As we wandered over to the cattle shed, Jilly said: ‘You’re lucky to have come here today when the weather is so good, when it’s windy here it’s horrible.’
Sitting on a high plateau, Langwells Farm is exposed to the weather but it’s elevated position does provide stunning views to Dartmoor on one side and the sea beyond Slapton on the other.
Surrounded by similarly verdant farmland, Jilly was temporarily baffled about where her boundaries lay when she bought the farm four years ago.
‘When I moved here I was not too sure which were my fields,’ she laughed. ‘My cousin Gary Harding farms next door and you can see Phil Bond’s fields too.’
Jilly lives at the farm bungalow with her twinkly-eyed 77-year-old mum, Florence, who pulls her weight around the farm when she can, despite a limited mobility.
Tougher than she looks, Florence was also brought up on a farm, and takes animal husbandry in her stride. Just a few days earlier she had somehow managed to deliver a lamb, leaning her walking stick against a wall and getting stuck in.
‘The ewe was in some difficulty but Jilly was at the shop and I didn’t want to bother her with it,’ she said.
One of Jilly’s favourite times of year is Showtime. Dartmouth’s annual Fatstock Show is one of her favourites – ‘it’s got a lovely atmosphere’ – and where she swept the boards 16 years ago, scooping all of the cups including Best in Show for sheep and cattle.
Jilly rarely enjoys a day off and, like most farmers, gets exasperated with the increasing amount of bureaucracy and paperwork foisted on them but when I asked her what she hoped to be doing in 10 years’ time, she simply said: ‘Here I hope.’
First Published May/June 2012 By The Dart