There can’t be too many farms anywhere in the world with a view like the one from Bigton Farm, on the west coast of Shetland’s Mainland. The stone house looks out across a white-sand spit of sand to the beautiful, rolling St Ninian’s Isle, a place of puffins, poetry and 8th-Century buried treasure.
The 500-metre beach is Britain’s longest tombolo, or ayre in the Old Norse-derived local dialect. On a sunny late afternoon in May, with the sun shimmering on the blue sea, you could easily just sit and gaze at it, lost in a Wordsworthian reverie.
But for Kirsty Budge, the no-nonsense 25-year-old farmer here, there’s not much time to admire the view. “Everyone who comes is amazed by it,” she says. “But to us, it’s just what we look at from the kitchen window.”
More than that, though, Kirsty has a farm to run. Though she shares the job with her 21-year-old sister Aimee, Aimee is off in Aberdeen, in her final year studying agriculture—leaving Kirsty in charge of the 300-hectare farm, with its 265 ewes, 70 cows and 80 acres of barley crops. For most people this is more than a full-time job, but three days a week Kirsty also teaches children with autism at the Bell’s Brae Primary School in the capital, Lerwick.
Kirsty and Aimee weren’t meant to be running Bigton Farm so soon. But, in 2014, their 46-year-old father Bryden died in a tractor accident, leaving his three daughters both mourning and facing a life-changing decision regarding the farm, which had been in the family for more than 150 years. While Hannah, 23, decided to focus on a Master’s in geography and a career away from farming, Kirsty and Aimee decided that they would commit to running the family business, with help and advice from their mother Helen and grandfather Jim.
“We’re the seventh generation working on the farm, and it felt like it would be an insult not to keep the farm going,” says Kirsty, talking to us in the farm’s shed, lit by beams of sunlight, surrounded by vociferous sheep and with the odd interruption from Boris the irascible sheepdog, named after Boris Johnson (Boris the dog was born when Boris the politician was in the news for having an affair, which doesn’t really narrow it down). “So many people behind us have spent such a long time and worked so hard to make the farm what it is, especially dad.”
While the accident left the girls devastated, Kirsty says “there was no use in us lying around, moping. We had to get up and feed the animals, and keep things going, for them but also for dad. In a way, the farm helped us come to terms with losing him.”
Nonetheless, for Kirsty and Aimee, it’s not simply about keeping the farm going. They’ve added new land, grown their livestock numbers and become Shetland’s only monitor farm, one of nine established across Scotland as an example of best practice. Kirsty’s current preoccupations include aiming to make the Bigton Farm cattle herd completely disease-free, and getting the sheep flock into the top third of Scotland’s Quality Meat figures.
“We’re so determined to make this the best business that it can be,” she says. “We want to make it sustainable, in economic and environmental terms, and we’re always looking to develop, and take on more livestock. Mum and grandad are always questioning us, which helps us. It pushes us to be better.”
Not long before we meet, Kirsty and Aimee have just appeared on the BBC’s Countryfile, having got down to the last three in the programme’s prestigious UK-wide Farming Heroes competition, whittled down from more than 700 nominations. “We didn’t know anything about it until about a month ago, when we got a phone call to say we’d been nominated after some local people had put us forward,” says Kirsty.“For me it’s not the winning. It’s the fact that people have recognised what we do. That really touches my heart, to know that somebody thinks that much of us.”
Kirsty isn’t one to get too carried away with her and Aimee’s story. “We’re not exactly what most people imagine when they think of a farmer,” she says. “But, in Shetland, women have always had a large and active part to play on the farm. I don’t feel like a farming hero, I just feel like I’ve grabbed the bull by the horns and just got on with what I love doing.”
She’s also very quick to avoid taking too much credit for the farm’s success, regularly pointing out not just the contribution of her mother and grandfather, but the many locals who have helped out over the years. “There are always people on hand who’ll drop everything to help you out, like taking a day off to help during the lambing season” she says. “I think that’s quite a Shetland thing, and without that support we couldn’t have done what we’ve done.”
Still, it seems like quite a burden, running this living, breathing, (literally) growing family business, especially during term time when her sister is away. So it’s a relief to hear that Kirsty does get some time off from tending her animals and helping autistic schoolchildren, and that she uses it well. Her two main hobbies are tearing along the beach on one of the family’s ten beautiful horses, or rowing around St Ninian’s Isle in a yoal, a traditional Shetland style of wooden rowing boat. The Bigton rowing team compete in competitions around Shetland, though Kirsty says it’s not really about the competition. “It’s really about going out, enjoying being on the sea with your friends, having a good chat and a laugh.”
All three daughters have ridden horses from a young age, and galloping across the beach to St Ninian’s Isle offers an even more concentrated form of stress relief. “When you’re on that horse, you don’t think about anything else,” says Kirsty, whose family owns the beach and island.
We know that she doesn’t really have the time, but nonetheless Kirsty has gathered her rowing crew for a row up towards the island, as the sun shimmers on the blue sea on this magical early evening. Later, she and Hannah do a few horseback laps of the field at the front of the farm, with unbroken views across St Ninian’s Isle and the North Atlantic (if you were to head west from here, Greenland would be the first land you’d hit). Afterwards, we see the farm’s new pigs, and play with a few orphaned caddy lambs as the summer light slowly softens.
When we leave, to head down to the beach for a few beers, Kirsty still has work to do. One of her sheep has become stuck on the rocks out on the island, and she needs to head out on the boat to rescue it. As we sip what feel like well-earned cans of Innis & Gunn, we watch the little boat chug out towards St Ninian’s Isle, driven by the indomitable Kirsty Budge.
Barely three weeks after our interview, the Budge family were in Bristol for the BBC Food and Farming Awards. Despite Kirsty claiming afterwards that “we didn’t expect to win, we were just there for a fun family holiday”—win is exactly what they did, being named the UK’s Farming Heroes of 2018. “It was really emotional,” says Kirsty. “The response to it all has been unbelievable and quite overwhelming.”
Kirsty is a little modest to put their story into proper context, but their mother Helen did a decent job after the event, telling the BBC: “I will never, ever believe how much they have been able, in the absolute depth of tragedy, to step up. They have done it for their dad.”
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