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Do Cows Belong in Fields?

When Orla Shortall applied to study for a Masters degree in ecological economics at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), she was hoping it would lead to a job in the environmental sector.

However, after a field trip to a sheep farm at the beginning of her course, she became hooked on agriculture and hasn’t looked back since. Orla Shortall

“I was really interested in the scientist’s descriptions of how difficult it is to make sheep farming pay and from then on I got interested in agriculture and directed everything I did in the Masters to agriculture-related topics,” she said.

Nearly a decade on, Orla, 33, is carrying out social sciences research on agriculture at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen – and making the occasional appearance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

This year she spoke on the topic: Do Cows Belong in Fields – looking at the issue of year-round housing in the dairy industry as part of a three-year postdoctoral fellowship funded by the British Academy from 2018-2021.

The project involves carrying out research with farmers, stakeholders and the public to explore visions of the future of dairy farming in the UK and Ireland.

“I’m really glad I got funding for the British Academy postdoctoral fellowship Cows eat grass, don’t they?” said Orla, who is originally from Ireland. “They’re competitive so I feel grateful to have been offered it. It’s great having three years to focus on one topic that you’re passionate about.”

She first appeared at the Fringe three years ago as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, run by the University of Edinburgh to help academics engage the public in their research.

“If someone had told me three years ago I’d be talking about cows at the Fringe, I don’t think I would’ve expected that. The Edinburgh Fringe is an absolutely incredible event, so it’s really exciting to be part of it.”

After leaving SRUC, Orla did a PhD at the University of Nottingham and the University of Copenhagen on the social and ethical issues around biofuels in the UK and Denmark. She followed this up with a post-doctoral research job in the Nottingham vet school looking at vet-farmer relationships, before moving to the James Hutton Institute to work on a variety of projects, including animal disease.

Her knowledge of, and interest in, cows – inspired by her time at SRUC in 2010 – led her to apply for the fellowship.

Her next ambition is to publish a book based on the results of the project.

orla shortall

Orla Shortall at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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