A PhD, a pandemic and the peripheral

Newcastle University: PhD Candidate: Hannah Budge                       

I am currently in the first year of my PhD at Newcastle University in the Centre for Rural Economy. My project is funded by the ESRC through the Northern Ireland and North East Doctoral training programme. I am examining the role of women in agriculture with emphasis on the Scottish Islands context; I am particularly interested in exploring the barriers which exist in the industry.

I am originally from the Shetland Islands, the most northerly archipelago in the UK. Raised on my family’s farm I relate to and have strong links to farming in this island community. Perhaps, it is then unsurprising that I wanted to pursue a PhD research project with the agriculture industry at its core.

I have always helped out on the farm during the peak times, for example during the lambing and calving season. This year was no different. I had planned to spend my Easter break helping out at home in Shetland. When the prospect of lockdown began looking increasingly likely, I made my way north to get to the farm for one of the busiest times of the year and avoid being stuck in the city. Thankfully I made it back to Shetland before travel restrictions were in place. Now only those who are deemed to be key workers or have a valid reason for travel are allowed in the islands.

From the farm perspective, the lockdown resulted in a complete lack of any outside help. Plans that enlisted veterinary students to family friends to come to the farm throughout the busy spring timetable, were scuppered by Covid-19. With an increase of the flock numbers, this led to questions of ‘How are we are we going to manage?’ After confirming with my main supervisor, I swapped my laptop for lambing to help during the busiest two weeks of May, when most of the flock was due to give birth. As always, it was an intense time full of highs, such as getting a particularly lifeless looking lamb breathing and now thriving, to some inevitable lows. Thankfully the weather was largely kind to us this year – only one night was spent searching for a lamb’s mother in the hail and approaching darkness.

Consequently, I have spent lockdown at my childhood home. The benefits of being able to help on my family farm has also come with some downsides. Not least trying to progress PhD research in a household with a poor internet connection while competing with four other family members all of whom have their own online work to contend with. A classic peripheral rural issue some may argue, that has become ever more apparent during COVID-19 where digital divides have been exposed on a new scale. It has led to the adaptation and negotiation of Zoom calls and internet searches, a timetabling of sorts, and a pleading of ‘CAN YOU ALL GET OFF THE INTERNET’, during an especially critical online moment.

As my two weeks of lambing drew to a close and I started to spend more time at my regular desk-based work in my make-shift office, my annually renewed appreciation for the farming community came to the fore. Helping out family members is always important, but equally as I progress with my research, I believe it is important to remain grounded, connected, and take time to reflect on the very subject I am investigating. As June provides longer days, more daylight and (some) sunshine, the calls of ‘Can you come and help with this ewe Hannah?’, become increasingly spaced out, my focus is redirected to the academic perspectives of being a ‘woman in agriculture’ with renewed appreciation for the work and effort put into farming practices.

The first week of June was supposed to be my first PGR conference. Due to COVID-19 the format of the conference was moved online. This meant sending in electronic posters which were uploaded to Microsoft stream for all the students and staff to both view and comment upon; a great way for those taking part to engage with others and display the wide range of research which goes on at both a school and faculty level. My own poster got a number of ‘likes’ and comments, which I enjoyed replying to and engaging with.  

I chose a simple design for my poster which included a picture of my younger sister, who farms fulltime, fencing on the island of Shetland Although there has undoubtably been progress throughout the years regarding the awareness of women’s roles in the agriculture industry, some argue that there is still a way to go. This was highlighted in research (Shortall et al, 2017) and the Scottish Government (2019) Women in Agriculture’s Taskforce final report which included a number of recommendations of how greater equality may be achieved in the farming community. My own research will examine this from an island perspective, where life is different to that of the mainland. This is demonstrated in the recent Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, highlighting at a government level the awareness of the individualistic needs of the islands; religion, population size and land tenure systems will need to be considered in terms of potential effect on the barriers women face on entering and within the industry.

I am looking forward to conducting the research, although my original plan was to carry out face to face interviews and focus groups during my second year, this will all depend, as with many things right now, on the COVID-19 situation.  An alternative will be to move the data collection methods online, although this presents its own challenges, not least the participants’ internet connectivity and whether they also experience band-width issues that I have encountered first-hand on the farm. I will have to take this into consideration alongside many other factors, but for now I will continue reading and expanding my academic knowledge of the subject, whilst being ready to aid with any farm emergencies and barter my own band width!


Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 (asp 12). Available at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2018/12/enacted (Accessed 6th June 2020).

Scottish Government (2019) ‘Women in Agriculture Taskforce: final report’, Scottish Government, ISBN: 978-1-83960-334-1.

Shortall S, Sutherland LA, McKee A, Hopkins J. (2017) Women in farming and the agriculture sector. Edinburgh, UK: Scottish Government.