Flock therapy: Suffolk shepherd Kit Bradley on finding happiness amongst her sheep
PUBLISHED: 11:42 12 September 2017
When her world fell apart, Kit Bradley found a happier life looking after sheep. Matt Gaw met her at Nowton Park, near Bury St Edmunds. Photography: Jennifer Leavy
Kitty Bradley closes the gate behind her and gives the bucket of feed a shake, smiling as the ewes that were already starting to drift towards her, break into a see-sawing trot. Lambs, some just a week old, jink and bounce alongside. She whistles to them.
“Come on girls! Come on!” They reply with throaty, rolling baas.
“Some people find Jesus”, she says, grinning, “but I found sheep.”
When Kitty, known as Kit, moved to Bury St Edmunds from London 13 years ago, the idea of being a shepherd couldn’t have been further from her mind. Studying for Med School, she had her sights set on becoming a doctor, to continue working in the NHS where she already spent 11 years, including in paediatrics at Ipswich Hospital.
Her life was mapped out – secure, confident, happy. It was shortly after she had her son, Jake, that Kit’s world “fell apart”.
“When Jake was about nine-weeks-old post-natal depression hit me like a smack in the face. I found everything so hard, I just couldn’t function properly. I had been such a social bunny – you know, out four or five nights a week – and suddenly I’ve got a kid and life, as I know it, is over.
“I think the marriage was already on the rocks and I was trying to process everything but it had all changed immeasurably. I just couldn’t cope.”
She breaks off to call her dog, a beautiful blue-eyed young collie called Bear, or more often “pup pup”, and we start the walk round woodland and scrub to check on her rams in the next field.
The thing is, post-natal depression is common. According to NHS statistics one in every 10 women suffers from it within a year of giving birth. A recent study by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists found that 81% of women surveyed had experienced at least one episode of mental ill health during or after pregnancy. The same study revealed only 7% received the specialist care they needed.
“The problem is post-natal depression is still a taboo,” Kit says. “You know, you’re meant to just love your kid no matter what, and if that’s a difficult transition for you, then you’re a bad parent. You’re made to feel like that.
“I remember sobbing on the sofa with my then husband, saying, ‘I don’t think I will ever love him as much as I love you’. How the tables have turned, hey?”
Kit says she is lucky to still have a good relationship with Jake’s father, Sean, describing him as “a really good man and a great dad”. But she suspects her condition was probably another factor in the break-down of their marriage.
“Post-natal depression just grasps every bit of you. I tried so hard, but you go out to all these baby groups and you see all these mums who appear to have this instantly wonderful bond with their children. They make it look easy. It’s just . . . ” She composes herself.
“But it’s not easy, is it? Or for me it really wasn’t. I just felt completely desperate. Desolate. Useless. I kept asking myself, ‘Have I made the wrong decision? Maybe I should never have had kids? ‘Perhaps I’m not cut out to be a mum’. It all feeds the anxiety.”
We walk round to the rams’ field and sit on dew-damp grass as they saunter over. We laugh at Bear’s youthful confidence and how he skitters away when the largest male, huge horns textured like old oak, stamps in warning.
I ask Kit what her relationship with Jake was like during those early days and see a shadow flits over her face.
“I would look at him, and he would look at me, with these wonderful big eyes that he has, with these huge eyelashes . . .” her voice starts to break. She apologises and stares hard out across the field, watching a crow jumping from tussock to tussock before lifting off on black rag wings towards the treeline. Kit wipes away a tear with the back of her hand.
“He would look at me with such love, at his mum, saying ‘I need you’, and I would look back with every smile I could possibly muster. But no matter how hard I tried that feeling of ‘I’m going to do it all for you’ just wasn’t there.” She takes a deep breath and looks at me.
“I know it sounds strange but when I found sheep, everything was turned around. Everything became uplifting. I think when you’re watching the seasons change you start to understand and realise that everything in life is transitory. And that was a huge help for me, learning that everything changes. I could start applying that to Jake.
“It was hard, you know. He might be up four or five times a night. I might be exhausted or down, but I knew, this will change, just as it does out in the field. Of course the fresh air and exercise was immeasurably helpful too.”
Jake was three months old when Kit started volunteering for the National Trust at Ickworth, working for three hours at a time, between breast-feeds. First helping out as a gardener, she soon found herself supporting the estate’s shepherd to look after 1,000 sheep.
“I think I felt like I needed to be me again, that I needed to go somewhere where no one knew me. Where I could just introduce myself, and say, ‘Hi I’m Kit’, it wasn’t ‘Hi, I’m a mum, I’m part of a failing marriage’. I could just be me.” Yet Kit’s first experience of farming life was hardly of the bucolic ideal.
“Oh God! When I first started it was the beginning of March and there was horizontal sleet. Things were popping their clogs here, there and everywhere, but I just fell in love with it. I got offered the job and I never looked back. There is something really wonderful about caring for animals that needed me on such a different level. I guess I just found my calling.” She bats away a ram as it returns to peer into the empty feed bucket.
“I think I’ve always been someone that helps others. I loved working in the NHS, but here there are no politics. Sheep don’t talk back. You just get the nice bits where you look after things.”
The importance of being outside, of being a shepherd, was underlined for Kit when her job disappeared in 2015. Although devastated, she was also determined to keep hold of the “everything changes” perspective she had learned from being a shepherd. So much so, she decided to rear two orphan lambs in the back garden of her home in the centre of Bury St Edmunds. She laughs.
“It seems crazy now. My poor neighbours were knocking on the door and saying ‘Kit, I know this sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but have you heard sheep?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah sorry, they’re in my garden’. Jake and I bottle fed them three or four times a day until they were big enough to come up here.”
She points them out. Named Bert and Ernie, they still stick close together, and I recognise them as the pair that trundled over to meet Kit when she first entered the field, nuzzling black and white muzzles into her outstretched hand.
As a self-employed shepherd Kit now works for a farm running 5,000 sheep, but there is a palpable sense of pride about her own growing flock of Jacobs that graze the fields here at Nowton Park.
“Yes, I am really proud, definitely. This year I was working with thousands of sheep, lambing almost constantly, but I admit it was emotional when my own sheep had their first lambs. Jake was here too when it happened, it was a really special moment to share.”
I ask her how she manages to juggle being a single parent and farming, a career path not known for its short family-friendly hours.
“My family are really supportive, but Jake will come out with me too. He is six now but he delivered his first lamb at three. If it’s late he’ll just come out in his pyjamas. I can pull the truck right round here so he can stay sleeping in the truck if he needs to.
“The other farm I work on is a real family farm too – they completely understand that I have to be flexible for Jake and that I’ll do what I can, when I can.”
We break as Bear investigates an electric fence, yelping and darting away with his tail tucked between his legs. He runs to Kit, still whimpering, forcing his head onto her lap. She rubs his ears and kisses the top of his head. I ask her if there are other challenges to being a shepherd. She laughs again.
“There’s the obvious one – being female. Some people just won’t listen to a female farmer, it’s something they see as impossible. I even had a man the other week explaining to me that my sheep were goats. But it’s getting a lot better.
“There are shepherds – female shepherds – out there who are changing the path for a lot of young people, which is fantastic. I guess really that’s what I want to do, to help people that might be in the same situation as I once was.” She motions with her hands towards the fields, the trees, the sky and the sheep.
“I’ve found my happy place. I’d love to help others find theirs.”
You can follow Kit on Twitter @shepherdesskit