The Shepherd's Year
by Veronica Gore
Shepherds and their dogs
To watch a group of shepherds and their dogs gather sheep from the fells is to see a highly skilled and collaborative endeavour. Collaboration between the shepherds is based on goodwill, tradition, collective management and a close collaborative relationship between the shepherds and their dogs.
The dogs and the shepherds will be spread out over the fell, each working a particular patch that has been previously agreed upon. Often they are out of the line of sight of each other. Together they locate and winkle out the sheep from ghylls and crags, and drive them all to a focal point, where the shepherds will divide up the hundreds of sheep into their own flocks, to be driven home.
Gathering in mid-summer and in autumn
This gathering of the sheep from the fells takes place twice a year - in mid-summer and in the Autumn. The shepherds' common grazing rights on the fells are one of the ancient rights which developed form the Manorial system. Historically these rights were managed by Manorial Courts to prevent issues such as over-grazing. The sheep are “hefted” to the fell, taught where their section of fell is from one generation to the next, and so do not wander across the fell into other valleys.
In mid-summer the sheep are brought down from the fell to be clipped. The ewes are separated (shed) from the lambs born that April and then clipped of their woolly coats. The clipping is hot, tiring, skilled and noisy work, often undertaken by groups who move from farm to farm, or groups of farmers combining to help each other. Herdwick wool was once prized for its durability, but more recently its harshness has made it less popular, and the wool fetches less than the cost of clipping the sheep. So clipping is done for the welfare of the sheep which otherwise would be prone to maggots taking hold in the thick wool. Some Herdwick wool is now being used in carpets, and also for insulation in houses. A good use of this highly dense, warm, durable wool.
Smit-marking and dipping
Each sheep is marked with the farm’s “smit”, to identify where it belongs to, and a few days after clipping the sheep are dipped to repel flies and maggots. Following this, ewes and lambs are taken back onto the fell, or to intake land on the lower slopes of the fells that have been enclosed by dry stone walls. They will graze here for the rest of the summer, making the most of the new summer growth of grass.
The lower fields, which the sheep have not grazed since they were put on the fell in May, will soon be ready for cutting for hay. This is a necessary crop to feed the sheep during the winter months, when, especially at higher altitudes, the grass grows very slowly and any new grass is quickly devoured by hungry sheep.
Autumn sales and Country Shows
In early autumn the sheep are brought down from the higher fells for the Autumn sales. The lambs are separated from the ewes and the shepherds prepare their surplus lambs and ewes for selling. Some surplus breeding ewes and tups (breeding males) are sold to lowland farms. The ewes, tups and lambs are also prepared for the many Country Shows that take place in the early Autumn. The importance of having the winning sheep is apparent in the friendly rivalry between the shepherds. A win can be a hugely important event, in terms of the reputation of the shepherd, and also the value of the individual sheep and the flock.
Tups and ewes
In late Autumn, (late October to November) the tups are put to the ewes. You may see the tups with colour on their chests and some of the ewes in the field with coloured bottoms. The colour on the tup’s chest is changed every ten days so that the shepherd will know in April and May when the sheep will lamb. That year’s lambs, which the shepherd will retain for the future of their flock, are often sent to winter in lowland farms in the Eden valley the other side of Penrith, which has particularly rich grassland. Spare male lambs (wether lambs) are fattened in the autumn and winter to be butchered for meat later in the following year. They are often sold in the Autumn lamb sales as “stores” - lambs to be fattened on better land in the Eden valley during the winter months and then sold after they’ve put on weight at “fat lamb” sales in the Spring.
During the winter months the shepherds look after their core breeding flock, feeding them when needed with the hay grown in the summer, and supplementary feed when needed. This is a time when the shepherds catch up with all the jobs on the farm that they don’t have time for at busier times of the year – walling, laying hedges, mending fences and gates, treating the feet of lame sheep, worming. The sheep are moved from one field to the next every week or two to enable the grass to have some chance of growing in each field as they are moved on. There is an old saying in the valley that sheep should not hear the church bells twice in the same field.
Spring arrives and with it lambing. Herdwicks are lambed later than in other parts of England, starting in mid-April and lasting for about 6 weeks. Lambing mostly takes place outdoors in “in bye” land close to the farms. The shepherd keeps a close eye on his or her ewes from dawn to dusk and can spot at a glance when the ewe is on the verge of lambing and whether all is well. If the lambs are very small, or there are other problems, they can easily be brought into nearby barns. In April it can be cold and may still snow, so it is important that the lambs are quickly brought inside for 24 hours if there is a problem. But Herdwicks are hardy, and even as newborns they have thick warm coats, so they are soon on their feet and feeding.
In May the lambs are given their flock marks, their “smit”. Ewes with single lambs are put on the fell, and those with twins are mostly kept in the “in bye” until clipping.
And so the cycle begins again...
by Veronica Gore
My thanks to James Rebanks whose book, "The Shepherds Life", provided much of the information contained in this short article, and to Jean and Derek Wilson who commented on an earlier version.
Other Topics you may find of interest
Countrystride Podcast in which James Rebanks talks to Mark Richards about his latest book, English Pastoral