The cows have broken loose.
Kenny Gracey is driving through farmland outside the market town of Portadown early on a Sunday afternoon when the traffic suddenly stops. A man in a suit, his coattails flapping wildly behind him, is chasing after a half-dozen cows who’ve wandered out of their paddock and into the road.
“That’s the guy who owns them. He’s just come from church,” says Gracey, who jumps out of his silver SUV, leaving the door open as he helps corral the wayward cattle. After a minute or two, the crisis has been averted and he returns to the car. “You see that all the time,” he says.
Gracey is a rare-breeds animal farmer who lives on land in County Armagh, about 40 minutes southwest of Belfast owned by his family since 1710 or possibly earlier; the church records don’t go back any further. At Forthill Farm, he raises breeds of livestock that have fallen out of fashion with the rise of factory farming — longhorn cattle, Gloucester old spot pigs, Herdwick sheep — but they’ve made a comeback of sorts in “Game of Thrones,” the hit HBO fantasy that ends its eight-season run Sunday.
When the Great Recession hit 10 years ago, Gracey had just invested heavily in opening a shop on the farm. Suddenly, his livelihood was in jeopardy. “I just couldn’t have had worse times,” he recalls.
Gracey pulls up in front of his home — a stone building with a thatched roof and a pair of Irish wolfhounds barking in the front window — and recounts his unlikely path into the business. He was first approached about loaning some of his animals to the stoner fantasy spoof “Your Highness,” starring Natalie Portman, which filmed in Northern Ireland just before “Game of Thrones.”
“It was desperate,” he says of the movie. But it led to steady work as an animal wrangler on “Game of Thrones” at a crucial time. “[‘Game of Thrones’] pulled me out of a hole. It helped keep the farm going and allowed me to keep working with animals, which I love doing,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean he’s seen it. “I’m not really into television and film,” Gracey says, as he walks in the door and is greeted by the wolfhounds, a collie and a Jack Russell terrier. The walls are adorned with ribbons from livestock shows and in the corner a pair of turquoise emu eggs — about the size of Daenerys’ dragon eggs — sit in an incubator. Just beyond is a kitchen with a stone hearth, a leather armchair and a wooden table.
Tall and bearded with worn hands, Gracey puts on a kettle for tea and puts out some oat scones with lemon curd while explaining how it is that he’s never watched the show that helped keep his farm going. He doesn’t subscribe to Sky Atlantic, the network that carries it here. So he waited for the first season to come out on DVD. He had to get his grandson to show him how to work the player built into the small TV in his kitchen.
Finally, he recalls, he sat down in his chair to watch after pouring himself “a wee brandy.” Not understanding at the time that TV shows tend to shoot out of order, he was confused when the opening scene was something filmed in winter, near the end of production.
“I was waiting to see the scenes that I was in, the bits that I knew. They weren't in it. This was 10 o'clock at night. Went to bed that night totally confused,” says Gracey in a soft, low voice that rises slightly at the end of his sentences — a signature of the Northern Irish accent.
The next night, he tried again. After some difficulty getting the first disc to eject, he watched the second episode, but couldn’t get into the story because it was so different than what he’d imagined. Then he dozed off for what seemed like a few seconds but was probably more like five or 10 minutes and ended up missing more of the plot than he realized. “So I said, ‘To hell with that,’ and I never watched another bit.”
That first scene he worked on appears in the pilot, “Winter Is Coming,” when the Starks discover a dead stag in the forest. The animal was real and came from an estate controlled by the department of agriculture. “They had a big old stag that was due to be culled and I bought it off them,” explains Gracey. The animal was killed the morning of the scene so it was fresh.
And though he couldn’t tell you what episodes they’re in, several of Gracey’s (living) animals, have ended up in the show, and so has he — as an extra at Winterfell. He likes to be a background player in scenes with his animals whenever possible, because he can be more hands-on. “Everybody thinks they're good with animals but they're not.”
Through his connections with other animal breeders, he’s procured other exotic or unusual species for the show — including lovebirds, leeches and an African millipede — and, with a license to handle animal carcasses, did things like dressing the background of scenes with “old gory-looking bits” of meat.
He owns 47 acres and rents another 300, where he raises 20 to 30 breeding sows, about 100 sheep, 150 cows, “22 or 23” horses and two emus. When he’s not putting in long days on the farm — he typically starts working around 6:30 am and sometimes goes until 10 at night — he’s often on set. Gracey has wrangled animals for many of the film and TV projects that have followed “Game of Thrones,” including the period drama “Death and Nightingales,” the police procedural “Line of Duty” and the serial killer drama “The Fall.”
Having finished our tea, we are about to go meet his animals when Gracey asks, “You want a good photograph?” He takes me up a narrow spiral staircase to the second floor and points up up toward the rafters: Mounted on the wall is the head of the stag from the series pilot. “It's a nice memento to have. Quite a valuable one as well,” he says. “Imagine if you put that one on EBay.”
We get back in the SUV and drive past his farm shop, a log cabin where he sells sausage and other meat from animals raised on the farm, to an enclosure where Yanna, his beloved 7-year-old deer, is grazing alongside a llama and a sheep with curlicue horns.
“Come on, darlin’,” he says, summoning Yanna to the fence and planting a big kiss on her snout, then encouraging me to pet her. “Put your hand on her, one of the only times you'll get to pet a deer.”
Yanna was the star of his favorite “Game of Thrones” scene — again, don’t ask him the episode. Producers wanted the deer to stand in a snowy forest as a cameraman holding a Steadicam raced toward her — as if the camera were “the eyes of wolf.”
"This was a big ask,” says Gracey, who stood nearby talking to the deer soothingly as the cameraman approached. It worked: Yanna stayed still and they got the shot. “The cameraman, he had tears in his eyes. He said ‘I didn’t think the animal was going to stand there.’ If it hadn’t worked, they’d have done the CGI and that would have cost a bloody fortune. That was a heart-touching moment. A year previously you couldn’t have gotten within 500 yards of her.”
Gracey tells me about his most recent project, a Netflix game show called “Flinch” that can best be described as “‘Fear Factor’ in a barn.”
The show puts contestants in excruciating situations; if they flinch, they lose. “It's bloody torture, that's what it was,” he says, laughing as he explains some of the scenarios, most of which involve animals eating things off people’s faces. “God, that was good craic [fun].”
A bit further down a muddy lane is a paddock where Mabel and Hilda, two Iron Age pigs with thick boar-like bristles, are happily dozing in a pile of hay. They’ve also appeared on the show, which may explain their diva-like reluctance to interrupt their nap to meet a fan.
“Hilda, Mabel get up,” Gracey says. “Come out and get a photo.” Only Mabel, a dark brown sow, complies.
‘Game of Thrones’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)