Academic undergoes a sheep learning curve

Plant scientist Professor Dianna Bowles explains how her love of Herdwicks led to the setting up of the Sheep Trust to preserve rare breeds

I moved to Nidderdale in the late-1980s when I was teaching at Leeds University. I worked from home quite a lot and couldn't concentrate with the sound of the radio coming through the walls of my semi in Headingley. So I decided I would try and buy a detached house, but had to look well away from Leeds for something I could afford.

Eventually I found a cottage in Middlesmoor and couldn't understand why it was so much less than others that looked the same. I know now – Middlesmoor is remote! I once described it as at the end of the road in the back of beyond.

People come to live here thinking it's going to be bliss and they either sell up within a year, or they stay the rest of their lives. It's quite clear cut. Personally, I love it. A friend described it as having "weather in capital letters".

Certainly the wind is nearly always blowing. I really like the wind – even horizontal rain and snow passing the windows sideways.

I regularly commuted into Leeds since the drive was fine providing you arrived at the ring road before 7am. The countryside was superb and every year in spring I noticed black lambs in fields by the Sun Inn, but later in the year could never understand why there were no black sheep.

So one day about 18 years ago, I decided to stop and ask at the farm. The farmer was a lovely man named Harry Hinde. He explained that the sheep were Herdwicks. He'd come over from Ennerdale in Cumbria – where Herdwicks are the main breed – and brought some of his sheep with him.

Harry's passion for Herdwicks was infectious. I ended up buying two of his shearlings and looking back now you could say that decision changed my life. Stephen Ramsden let me put the two with his sheep at Middlesmoor and Harry would come each year and fetch them for tupping and bring them back at Christmas.

Stephen's patience with me ran to five Herdwicks but when a field became available to rent, I decided to go in for it and take on more responsibility for looking after them. I was clueless and thought that sheep just got on with life while one watched. Being an academic, I also bought numerous books on sheep and during that first lambing there was total panic with me literally going round the field with a book in one hand and rushing back to the village to knock on doors for help.

At about the same time, my career as a plant scientist was becoming an increasing commitment. I founded a new journal The Plant Journal, moved my research laboratory to York University to become the Chair of Biochemistry, and among other things established the Plant Laboratory there as well as the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products.

My main research now is working with the Bill Gates charity to develop better yielding varieties of the Artemisia plant for the production of a major drug used in the fight against malaria.

People were always surprised that I kept sheep. The answer was – and still is – that they calm me down. I have quite a stressful job but it's difficult to be out of your head with stress when you're standing in a field of sheep. I used to call them my mobile beta-blockers.

Some friends in Middlesmoor, particularly Margaret and Jock Beecroft and Heather and William Glencourse, were always trying to keep me organised – as they still are. When the flock grew during the early 1990s, I persuaded Heather to go with me to the Lake District – so we could find out more about Herdwicks as well as buy a good tup. She had to stop me buying an old tup at one farm because "I liked his eyes". As we were driving down Wasdale, below Scafell Pike, I remember seeing fields full of sheep that looked amazingly content – all really fit and strong-boned with oak trees for front legs. I thought I would knock on the door of the farm and say I thought their Herdwicks looked superb.

It must have seemed very odd, a complete stranger turning up. But the woman who answered – Margaret Gass asked if I'd like to see round the farm and we spent an hour or so walking round the Ghyll. Margaret and Bob became really good friends and in time I expanded my flock by buying some of their ewes. Those two fell farmers were like strips of leather – honed by the sun and the wind of the high tops. Later, when we went to Cockermouth tup sales, I remember asking Margaret what I should look for in a good tup and she had said "a leg at each corner". I thought at the time it was a joke, and only recently have my eye in enough to see what she meant.

In the last few years I was fortunate to have an opportunity to buy some land nearby. I more or less remortgaged my entire life – but it was worth it because it meant I could expand my flock and also have sheltered lowland for winter and high moorland for summer. The Herdwicks – some 160 now – go up and down the hill dependent on the weather. There's been a lot to do repairing walls, putting in fencing and pens. Usually I find myself buying yet another water trough rather than things for the house.

I don't have a sheep dog – through feeding the sheep, particularly when they are young, they get used to having me around. If I buy in some new bloodlines from the Lakes, it's a different matter. When I retired from being editor of The Plant Journal the publishers asked me what I wanted as a retirement present – and I said sheep – one for each of the 11 years. We went to the Lakes to buy some youngsters and they were completely wild. Even this year I was fortunate that Keith Verity and his dog were able to help to corner and rugby tackle a wild new professional ewe from Cumbria that had a lambing problem.

I suppose I'm still in this sort of half-way house between having pets and farm animals. I do eat them, though, and sell the meat privately or at Weatherheads down in Pateley Bridge.

My science had been separate from my love of sheep. The foot and mouth epidemic in 2001 changed all that. The Herdwicks were getting hammered, losing thousands every week – not so much through the virus but through the Government's contiguous kill policy. I was writing letters to MAFF and Channel 4 News but never getting a response. Then one day my phone rang and it was Andrew Nicholson, the breeder who sold me my first good tup, saying "you're a scientist why can't you do something to help us?" I suppose I thought I couldn't – not as an individual. But I phoned round some academics in animal science and they said I needed to get James Mylne, a sheep specialist, involved and then we could collect semen and embryos from flocks at threat of being taken out.

We set up Heritage Gene Bank. It was like a crisis taskforce, working with a superb local vet, Amanda Carson – she carried on working with us when the Gene Bank became a national charity, the Sheep Trust. We didn't just work with Herdwicks but other breeds such as the Rough Fells and Dalesbred as they also came into new protection and infection zones. Because the regional breeds still exist – thankfully – in many thousands, people don't realise how much they are at risk. The trust has just recently collected the first evidence to show how geographically concentrated these regional breeds are. This puts them in real danger if a disease such as BTV or FMD hits their region. Hopefully the Government will now change the policy.

Back at home, it's almost clipping time again. The Swaledale breeders, Mark and Paul Ewbank have always clipped my sheep. For years they never said a word about them till one year, I heard them comment "good tup". I was bowled over and asked if they'd like to write it down. That tup shearling went on to win his class at the Great Yorkshire and was reserve Herdwick champion. I don't know if that means I may have been accepted as a sheep farmer, but perhaps with a fair wind I'm going in the right direction. In science for 40 years, I do know my way around. In sheep farming I feel it's been a steep learning curve from kindergarten. But the Herdwicks on the hill above Middlesmoor seem laid back and content, so I must be doing something right.

Professor Dianna Bowles was talking to Roger Ratcliffe.