Read The Shepherd's Life Online

Authors: James Rebanks

The Shepherd's Life (4 page)



After the noise at the fell gate, gathering quickly becomes a quieter and lonelier day's work. Most of it is spent far from other people, working with them but far beyond talking distance. It is a day to work with the dogs. A fell dog is a special thing, tough as old boots, smart, and capable of working semi-independently a long way across the mountain. I'm a lucky man to have two fine field sheepdogs. Border collies. There isn't much they can't do in the valley bottom. They'll creep and crawl, and dart every which way, and hold sheep spellbound with a look. They are my pride and joy, but they are not great fell dogs (not yet, anyway). That's a totally different thing altogether. Fell dogs are their own type; they need to be strong and smart, and less about “eye” and more about following instruction or using their wits when beyond command.

As we head across the fell we see some ewes that should be on our common beyond a deep gill on the mountainside opposite. I fear they are too far away to get them today. They will, I assume, come in with the neighbouring common and we will collect them later. But Joe, who is cleaning out that gill, has sent his dogs to get them. From where he is, he can scarcely see the sheep as they are so far away. He is farther away than we are. I don't think it is possible. The dog lurches back, onwards, up and up, climbing higher and higher towards the distant skyline. A whistle or two reassures it that it should keep going for sheep it cannot see yet because of the lie of the land. Then the dog sees the sheep it has been sent for, and knows what to do. It circles behind them and pushes them out of the crags. They twist and turn ever downwards and back towards us, then disappear down the far side of the gill. Ten minutes after the dogs were sent for them, the sheep rise out of the gill close to our feet. They are beaten and they know it. They trot obediently across the moorland and join the flow of sheep heading home. The dog sees that we have them now and turns back down to its master deep below. Joe gives us a distant wave and heads off. A dog like that is worth its weight in gold. My mouth was open slightly in awe when I saw how distant it was on the skyline. I had to shut it to not seem silly. My dogs for all their merits couldn't have done that. We aren't easily impressed but there is a kind of respectful hush at what we just saw.

An old shepherd turns to me and says, “That is a proper fell dog.”

“Yes,” I acknowledge, “but don't tell
. His head will swell.”



At the far end of the fell I wait as I've been told. I'm not sure whether it is seconds, minutes, or hours that pass there, because there is no sense of time.

I watch small trickles of sheep heading home, pushed by the men left behind me. Joe has almost cleared the gill out, and I join up with him to cut across the far end of the fell. We pause to admire a Herdwick tup lamb (ram) that is passing us chased by the dogs.

“Look at that.”


“It is one of yours.”

“I know.”

“The mother just passed without it a minute ago.”

“It will win shows, that one.”


“Time will tell.”

He cuts behind me and pushes sheep across the heather. And I head round the skyline pushing sheep down to Joe, and clearing out the peat hags. I am at the farthest point from home now. I see my world stretched beneath me, the three kinds of farmland that make up our world: inbye (meadow), intake (the lower slopes of the fells which aren't common land because they have been enclosed by walls or fences), and fells. The farming year here revolves around the managed movement of the sheep between these three kinds of land.

A fell farm is at heart a simple thing. It is a way of farming that evolved to take advantage of the summer growth of grass in the mountains to produce things that farmers can consume themselves, in a subsistence model, or sell to earn their keep.

Nothing makes sense without reference to what went before and what comes afterwards. It is literally a chicken-and-egg thing (or sheep-and-lamb thing, if you prefer). But it might help if I briefly explain the basic structure of our working year. At its simplest it works like this.

Midsummer we keep the lambs healthy, gather the ewes and lambs down from the fells or intakes for clipping the sheep (we do this even though the wool is largely worthless now, because it is needed for their welfare), and make the hay for the winter.

Autumn sees us bring the sheep down from the fells or higher ground again for the autumn sales and shows, taking the lambs from their mothers (who can then recover from their efforts), and preparing and selling the surplus ewe lambs and ewes in the harvest of the fells. In these few short weeks we make most of our annual income, from selling surplus breeding females to the lowlands, and a handful of breeding males (tups) that are good enough to be sold to other breeders at a premium.

Late autumn is about starting the breeding cycle by putting the tups with the ewes, including the newly bought tups from other flocks. It is also when the retained lambs (those required for the future of the flock) are sent away for the winter to lowland farms. Through late autumn (and winter) we also fatten and sell our spare male (wether) lambs to butchers for meat. Our farming is largely about producing breeding sheep for sale to other farmers (who value the daughters of the fell flocks because they are tough and productive on lower ground), and male lambs for meat from the abundance of grass in the mountains between May and October (there is an intermediate trade in these lambs called selling them “store” which has a middleman buy them and fatten them). What money we make is from these two kinds of production.

Winter is about looking after the core breeding flock through the worst weather of the year, feeding them when needed (our sheep eat grass for much of the year until it disappears in the winter months, when we need to feed them the hay).

Late winter/early spring we tend the pregnant ewes and prepare for lambing time.

Spring revolves around lambing the ewes on the best land we have (the inbye) and looking after hundreds of young lambs.

Late spring/early summer we are marking, vaccinating, and worming the ewes and lambs and pushing them to the fells and intakes to take advantage of the summer growth of grass, freeing the valley bottoms to grow the hay for winter.

And then we do it all again, just as our forefathers did before us. It is a farming pattern, fundamentally unchanged from many centuries ago. It has changed in scale (as farms have amalgamated to survive, so there are fewer of us) but not in its basic content. You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year. The timing of each task varies depending on the different valleys and farms. Things are driven by the seasons and necessity, not by our will.

Sometimes I am left alone somewhere on the mountain, waiting for the others, alone in the silence. Skylarks rise, ascending in song. Sometimes there are moments when not a sheep or a man can be seen. Away in the distance I can see the main roads and the villages. No one really knows how long this fell gathering has happened, but it is quite possibly as much as five thousand years.



Beneath my feet and all around me is the rough mountainous grazing land. Traditionally, Lake District farms like ours had common grazing rights for a set number of sheep on the common belonging to their manor. The numbers were established by custom and communal management to reflect the grazing capacity of the fell and the winter grazing capacity of the farms down below. This was, and is, a system that requires rules and customs to prevent abuse, cheating, or mismanagement. Before mobile phones or e-mail, the only way that people could work collectively to manage this land was to have agreed traditions and practices—making clear what everyone was supposed to do, when, and how. There were even manorial courts to punish wrongdoing with fines, a practice that still exists through the commoner's associations. We collect stray sheep from one another at our shepherd's meet in November or are fined by the other commoners. Travelling by road from one side of a common to the other to collect a stray can be a ninety-mile or more round trip. Some farms still have stocks on different commons, so some fell shepherds spend a lot of their lives gathering different fells. Some farm lads specialize in this kind of gathering as an extra way to earn their living, and have packs of sheepdogs for the work.

*   *   *

There is a poetic fantasy that shepherds and farmers live a kind of isolated existence alone with nature. Wordsworth encouraged that idea, offering the world an image from his childhood of the shepherd alone in the fells with his dogs, at one with nature. At times this is physically true: men like my grandfather were sometimes alone with our sheep and the natural world. But shepherds don't exist alone. My grandfather had a field called the football (soccer) pitch. There were enough young men working on the neighbouring farms that they could muster two teams of eleven for a match. And his work was about dealing with and ultimately impressing and earning the respect of other people.

Apparently the Bedouin can navigate the Sahara because they have an extensive knowledge of the dunes and sandy ridges; and even though these move slowly over time, the Bedouin can count the ridges and know with a degree of accuracy where they are and how to get to where they are going. Our cultural navigation, our placing of ourselves and other people, works on a similar structural basis—if you understand the bones of it, you can navigate the detail.

My grandfather and father could go just about anywhere in northern England and they'd usually know who farmed the land they had passed by and often who was there previously or who farmed next door. The whole landscape here is a complex web of relationships between farms, flocks, and families. My father can hardly spell common words but has an encyclopaedic knowledge of landscape. I think it makes a mockery of the conventional idea of who is and isn't intelligent. Some of the smartest people I have ever known are semi-illiterate.

My grandfather could quickly find common ground with any farmer, discussing what breeds of livestock he kept, and which auction mart he frequented. He knew what everyone was likely to be doing at any given time of year. “Don't bother going to see the Wilsons.… They'll be too busy dressing mule hoggs [the beautiful ewe lambs they sold each autumn for breeding on lowland farms] today,” he'd say. And if I went to the farm over the hill that he was talking about, I'd see that he was right.

Long before anyone could have a credit ratings check, people here could quickly find out if someone new in the community was trustworthy or not; a few questions in an auction mart or at a show with someone from the person's previous community and their whole pedigree and track record would be passed on.

So someone being accused of sheep stealing is a matter of scandal, a dirty rumour that flows through the valleys. Recently a well-respected Pennine farming family was accused of stealing sheep from many of their neighbours. The case has not been to court yet, and I have no way of judging whether it will end in a conviction or an acquittal—but the shock waves it sent through the hill farming community were profound. An old man we know, who farms the same common, had tears in his eyes when he told us about it—like he couldn't believe someone he trusted might be guilty of cutting out ear tags, sawing off horns with the burnt-on flock marks, and stealing sheep.

There is an unwritten code of honour between shepherds here. I remember my grandfather telling me about his friend buying some sheep privately from another farmer for what he thought was a fair price. Weeks later he attended some sheep sales and realized that he had got the sheep very cheap indeed, too cheap, about £5 less each than their market value. He felt that this was unfair to the seller because he'd trusted him. He didn't want to be greedy, or perhaps as important, to be seen to be greedy. So he sent the farmer a cheque for the difference and apologized. But the farmer who'd sold them then politely refused to cash it, on the grounds that the original deal was an honourable one. They'd shaken hands on it. Stalemate.

The only way out was to go back the next year and buy his sheep and pay over the odds to make up for it, so he did. Neither of these men cared remotely about “maximizing profit” in the short-term in the way a modern business person in a city would; they both valued their good names and their reputations for integrity far more highly than making a quick buck. If you said you would do a thing, you'd better do it. My grandfather and father would go out of their way to do good deeds for their neighbours because goodwill counted for a lot. If anyone bought a sheep from us and had the slightest complaint about it, we took it back and repaid them or replaced it with another. And most people did the same.

Fathers' names are interchangeable with those of the sons, and surnames with the names of the farms. The name of your farm tells other farmers here as much about you as your surname. There might be twenty farmers with the same surname, so it is immediately followed by the name of the farm for clarification. Sometimes the name of the farm kind of replaces the surname in general discourse.

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