Writer Holly Crawford swapped her desk in England for a sheep farm in Islandmagee — and published a book about her adventures.
tuck in the Middle with Ewe: Or How I Found my Flock and Lost my Heart in Northern Ireland details how a veterinary journalist became a cow milker, freelance writer and foster mother of lambs.
Shortly before the pandemic, Holly moved to Co Antrim to stay with her then fiancé Paul, a vet and sheep farmer.
“We started planning our wedding for May 2020, so what could possibly go wrong?” she laughs.
“It became clear that we would not be able to get married as planned. But as soon as Boris Johnson said we could have small weddings, Paul called the vicar and we got married in my home town.’
“We got married in less than 12 weeks because we just wanted to get married. We had to give up the fancy hotel reception, we had to cut the guest list in half.
“We had about 25 guests and we had our first dance in the church parking lot and cut the cake from the trunk of Paul’s car. But it was unforgettable.”
The couple, who will celebrate their second wedding anniversary on July 18, met when Holly was covering a conference honoring Paul for his veterinary services.
Friends for several years, they dated for a year before he proposed — at the same conference where they first met.
“Paul trained at the Royal Veterinary College in London and also practiced on the street in Northern Ireland and worked all over the place,” explains Holly (36).
“He was already living in Northern Ireland by the time I met him with his herd he had built.”
She knew the move to Islandmagee was in the offing – “I didn’t even have a potted plant to water while Paul had 200 sheep to look after” – and laughs as she discusses her first visit to the family farm.
“Almost as soon as I got out of the car, Pavel handed me a lamb. I said, “So you’re convinced that I like lambs?” and he said, “This is to make sure that my lambs like you.” I passed the lamb test.’
Growing up, Holly was a fan of veterinarian and author James Herriot, whose books featured veterinary practice, animals and family life.
“If I was good at math and science, I would want to be a vet or a nurse,” says Holly.
“Working as a reporter in a veterinary magazine was the closest thing to me. But I was very happy with it, and the fact that I was married to a vet means that technically I am (James’ wife in the books) Helen in my story.
“For our honeymoon, which was obviously supposed to be overseas but wasn’t, we went to the Lake District and then Yorkshire.
“I was very happy because we went into the world of James Heriot. I used to volunteer there when I was working as a reporter in Yorkshire. I took a picture of Paul outside the vet clinic with the sign.’
Living on a farm with her furry pals during isolation meant Holly was ready to return after her honeymoon — and take part in life on land.
“Writing about veterinary stuff from the comfort of my office is one thing, being among the sheep, as it were… because I’m obviously not a vet or a farmer, so I’m just trying to help out,” she explains.
“Paul taught me lamb, which was amazing.
“I didn’t think I could do it. He said farmers should learn to do this because they don’t call the vet every time.
“We still have him, number six, he’s the first one I brought.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for agriculture and the farming community because now I feed the cows three mornings a week and Paul and I feed three evenings a week.”
Holly began detailing her pastoral adventures to family and friends in England, and when a friend told her the anecdotes were “absolutely hilarious”, she knew it was time to continue her observations.
“I had this James Herriot story in my head where he says, ‘That’s another story for a book,’ and his wife says, ‘Fifty-year-old vets don’t sit down and start writing books.’ And that night he went out, bought a typewriter and started writing,” says Holly.
“Because of my journalistic training, I think I write very short stories. It’s in diary form because that’s how I write best. It’s very short, bright, and really gets you into it, and I just wanted to write something that would really make people smile. There are also sad moments, but mostly joyful ones.”
She chose a hybrid publishing model—she had previously self-published a book of poetry—and thought it would only be viewed by those close to her.
“We sold 300, the entire run, in less than six weeks,” she explains. “I have to say that the local independent booksellers and local shops are very supportive.
“I sell at The Secret Bookshelf in Carrickfergus, Books Paper Scissors in Belfast and many local shops around Islandmagee and beyond. Recently I have some places in Scotland and Hertfordshire.’
Holly, who is described as a “Northern Irish Sheepdog”, is similar to Amanda Owen, a Yorkshire Sheepdog, Holly’s book comments include “James Herriot meets the last of summer wine”, which she describes as “wonderful”.
“I have about 8,000 words written in the second book,” she says, while simultaneously working on her master’s thesis.
“The second plan, when I finish this, is that I’d like to move into romance fiction. I said to one lady, ‘I think I want to do a farm romance,’ and she said, ‘Farm story,’ so that’s a new genre.”
No longer tied to an office schedule, Holly set up her freelance writing business while milking and acting as “nurse of the lambs.” “Someone said the sheep are the stars of the show, and they really are,” she laughs.
“They are really, really smart. We have One-Ear and her lambs, and Dec, who was born at Christmas, hence his name, December… We’re going to keep him as a pet.’
Stuck In the Middle With Ewe: Or How I Found my Flock and Lost my Heart in Northern Ireland (The Conrad Press, £9.99) is available from selected bookshops. It can also be ordered in bookstores and online. The e-book is available on Amazon. Follow Holly on Instagram and Twitter @lambfostermummy