Courtney Watts is not your usual teenager. At just sixteen years old, the Guernsey girl juggles schoolwork and friends with caring for a flock of fifty sheep.
Sixteen-year-old Courtney Watts can’t wait to learn to drive. Not so she can transport herself to school, parties and Town, but so she can
tend to her flock of sheep more easily.
Farming is now a way of life for this teenager, who has been breeding her own sheep since the start of secondary school. She told Tamara Timothy about her passion for the island’s livestock, and her hopes for the future.
For the past five years, Courtney Watts has been steadily growing her flock of sheep, and her business. It all started after some good school results allowed her to start her unusual hobby. “I was in year six, and I’d done well at school, so my parents said they’d buy me something to say well done. And I wanted a sheep, because my uncle had sheep so I wanted a sheep as a present.”
That unusual gift was just the start of an impressive flock for the teenager. She bred that sheep for the first few years and added to her stock with the lambs she produced. Now she has more than fifty.
“I’ve got a flock of four rams that I use for breeding, about seventeen or eighteen breeding ewes, and then the other thirty something are lambs or other ones that are being brought along ready for breeding.”
Speaking to Courtney, it’s clear that this young islander has a sensible head on her shoulders. She talks about butchering and shearing as casually as most teenagers discuss schoolwork and make-up. But while she’s very business-like about her flock, she’s still sentimental about her very first sheep.
“I’ve still got her, she’s quite fat now, really fat. She’s now too old for lambing as she always gets into difficulties, so I haven’t bred her for two or three years. But I’m not going to use her for sausages, I’ll keep her until whenever she goes naturally. She’s got a pretty easy life now, all she does is eat food, that’s about the extent of her life.”
Unlike the sheep, Courtney’s life is hard work. She’s up at six o’clock every morning to feed the animals before she heads off to school. Evenings are spent feeding, watering and checking on her flock. She’s kept busy at weekends with fencing the fields she keeps her sheep in, and working on a local dairy farm. But she promises me that she still manages to squeeze in the social life of a normal sixteen-year-old girl.
Courtney’s family is a real, and necessary, support to her. They help with the care for the animals, and her father helps her transport them while she waits for that longed-for driving licence. That encouragement was particularly crucial this summer when her GCSE exams coincided with lambing season. Her parents helped out with the four-hourly checks throughout the night, allowing her to succeed with her exams and her business.
The sheep have been Courtney’s passion since age eleven. But she’s now branching out into other livestock. Visiting her at home, I was introduced to two new additions to her collection of animals – ten-week-old calves. Having spent the summer working on two local dairy farms, the calves were an unusual form of wages.
“I thought I’d give beef animals a shot and these ones are only little. Eventually I’d like to have two separate flocks of sheep and then alongside that a beef herd. That would be ideal but it all depends on the land and what my situation is.”
Courtney has a clear vision of how she wants to succeed, and is equally sure of why it’s important. For her, it’s vital that the future of farming on the island is secure – and she thinks that young farmers like herself will make the difference. But she knows it’s not an easy industry for a young person to break into.
“There’s a lot of farmers now, older generation farmers, and when they stop I think we’re going to have trouble filling all their roles. I’m part of the Young Farmers Club which has a very healthy membership, but I know there are a lot of young people who would be keen to get involved with farming but simply don’t have the money to get involved with it and to support that ambition.”
Courtney’s personal ambition is to provide something new for the island. She’s just started her A Levels, and is planning to go to agricultural college in the UK once she’s eighteen. But if she’s going to farm locally, she’s determined to do something different.
“I’d like to eventually look into milking sheep, which is something different for the island. I’m quite good at biology so I was looking into the fat content in sheep’s milk compared to cow’s milk, and it really is quite interesting. Sheep’s milk is a lot healthier and I think there is a gap in the market for it. Goat’s cheese is being made here, but nobody seems to be looking at making sheep’s cheese, which is really good.”
“Guernsey’s known for its dairy farming and I do like working on the dairy farms and milking the cows, but I think a bit of a change for the island is needed. It would be good to do something new, and something we can get more recognised for. If I say to someone I’m a dairy farmer in Guernsey they wouldn’t expect me to be milking sheep!”
Courtney knows what she wants for the future, but she’s also happy with what she’s already achieved. The trophies that line her shelves prove her success, whilst the feedback she’s had from her butcher, the States vet, and her many happy customers confirm that she’s getting it right. For now, that’s enough reward.
“The satisfaction comes from seeing something you’ve raised, watching it grow up and then knowing exactly what you’ve produced and knowing exactly what’s gone into your lamb, and the satisfaction of selling it on to people who always seem to come back for more. I’ve got quite a big customer base now, so it’s clearly working, and I just need to grow that in the future.”