bfa shortlist

A partnership playing to the other’s strengths has resulted in an innovative digital business which has transformed a traditional hill farm into a global, virtual centre of learning. Danusia Osiowy finds out more.

Delivering working dog tutorials online is a niche business idea which has outperformed expectations for sheepdog trainers Ewan Irvine and Emma Gray.

Having budgeted for 100 subscribers, such was the appetite for their service that they doubled their target in the first month alone, 80 per cent of which they have retained.

The unique idea, coupled with their dynamism, was unanimously praised by judges at last year’s British Farming Awards, who awarded them the accolade of Digital Innovator of the Year.

The couple had previously been tenant farming in a remote part of Northumberland when they successfully bred premium sheepdogs and established a school for training working dogs and for running courses for owners.

They nurtured the idea of extending that service to people who were distant from the farm, but with no internet or phone line on-site, logistics were not on their side.

Gaining a 20-year tenancy on a 283-hectare (700-acre) unit on the Isle of Bute reversed the opportunity, enabling them access to the 4G network and the chance to connect to an audience across the world as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.

“We decided to launch the Sheepdog School to coincide with the launch of series five of This Farming Life, which we featured in,” says Emma, who has written two books detailing her life as a shepherdess.

“The original target was 100 subscribers which would cover the start-up costs of £5,000 for this business and provide a year-round regular income for the farm.”

Online training

The online tutorials, which Ewan and Emma produce themselves on Ardros Farms, are a team effort.

With a wealth of sheepdog training and handling, Emma has been refining her expertise over the years after she was given her first dog Jess at the age of 13.

In 2016, she won the All-England Nursery Final with her dog Jamie and the following year was part of the winning England team at the World Sheepdog Trials in Holland.

Then her success was propelled further after selling one of her dogs for 14,000gns and then later going on to smash her own record with another dog she had bred and trained for a world record sum of 18,000gns.

Ewan, who worked as a firefighter for a number of years before deciding to farm full-time, alongside filming and producing the videos, grew up with collies on a smallholding and has been familiar with the breed and
managing cows for years.

Their offering has proved so popular, it now generates half the farm income.

Emma says: “Many farmers do not have the time to train their dogs themselves. It is a niche market finding people to start off with the dog, then the sheep, then the farm, so our dogs are helping draw in a new sector.

“The content is for everyone with a herding breed who wants to realise their herding potential. We commit to providing regular videos each month as we build a library of sheepdog training content.

“We have a number of dogs with different abilities training with us, so we can show how we handle each dog. We show how to train the farm dog to do everyday tasks, as well as the finer points of trialling.”


The school now boasts more than 650 subscribers, almost all of who are farmers and shepherds, with 85 per cent based in the UK and others signing up from countries as remote as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

They are confident their target audience is on point following a survey they issued to their subscribers, who confirmed they were farming, shepherding, managing or contracting their own sheep.

Ewan says: “We are proud to be providing a service for others in the agricultural industry.”

Alongside 400 ewes and 30 hill cows, they also breed Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers, diversifying into this breed after being inundated by people wanting to buy border collies as pets.

Emma says: “We feel the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever is a better fit for active pet homes.”

The strong understanding of their audience has propelled a loyal subscriber base and the couple are now using Google Analytics to follow traffic on their website and have identified about 63 per cent of their audience are female and 65 per cent are UK-based.

Using their social media platforms to raise awareness, Ewan and Emma launched their website for the business and their unique concept, alongside their engaging content, has seen them amass a following on Instagram of more than 75,000 followers.


Such is their success, the digital school is the most profitable enterprise on-farm and the couple now collaborate with other YouTubers and social media influences to create content.

Emma says: “We are growing our own YouTube channel and using our platforms to reach a worldwide audience. We are looking to launch a social media advertising campaign to further increase our subscribers to thousands of followers.

“Social media is crucial to our business. It is a way to access worldwide markets and give everyone access to what we do.”

Ewan says: “Farming is changing, so we are selling our story of hope. We are so psyched for the future of farming and social media helps us to sell that story to the public.”


  • 650-plus subscribers to online dog training
  • Library of sheepdog training and handling videos
  • Subscribers as far afield as New Zealand and Australia
  • 75,000 Instagram followers


Digital innovation in farming is booming and more and more farmers are recognising the benefits of multimedia platforms to grow their business, communicate with new and existing customers and improve overall public perception.

If you are using digital mediums to grow your business or promote the wider industry to the public, tell us your story and enter this award.


For more information on the category and the British Farming Awards, visit