Authors: James Rebanks
My grandfather would mark the ewes with our farm's smit mark as they were released. Our smit mark is a blue mark in front of red on the sheeps' shoulders that tells everyone they are our sheep.
A few days later we would dip our sheep. The ewes start to resist at the slightest smell of the stuff. So we have to manhandle them into the dipping tub. They are tossed into a grey chemical soup that repels flies, then swim around, looking for a way out. One of the men dunks them with a long staff with a metal prodder on the end. We children would go down to the river and admire the dead fish downstream from where the trickle of dipping flowed. Their upturned twisting bellies flash silver in the stream. No one worried about such things too much back thenâbut basically we were dipping them in chemical agents developed to kill people in World War I.
Clipping days are long hard days. They start early with bringing the sheep into the yard. The sheepdogs toiled hard to gather them up. I remember my grandfather working his dog like this on clipping days. He was struggling to move fast enough, but he had a great sheepdog. His dog, Ben, was a beautiful strong-boned black-and-white Border collie, a strong dog that could work a big flock of sheep. He even trained Ben to catch a single ewe on command without hurting it, holding the fleece without nipping the skin and using his strength to anchor the ewe, until Granddad could hobble closer and grab it. But Ben was cheeky; he knew he couldn't be caught by the old man so he would taunt my grandfather by bouncing in front of him as they went to do some work, and my grandfather would shout blue murder at him.
F this. F that. Threatening the evilest of punishments if he caught him.
Ben just bounced and smiled.
But once the work started, Ben would focus and together they could do almost anything. After he'd worked well, all the cheek was forgotten and never mentioned again, until the next day, when they would repeat their act. Later when my grandfather was older and had had a stroke, we made a bed for him in our front room in the farmhouse. We brought Ben in to see him, and he was so happy to see his beloved sheepdog that he cried.
A black lamb breaks back past me and bolts off up the road. I shout at Tan to go and fetch it back. He heads off with his long loping stride after it and passes it in a few seconds. At the point where dog and lamb are side by side, Tan kind of nudges it off-balance with his nose as they gallop, and it tumbles in the grass and turns over. It comes back to the flock, parting the foxgloves and thistles by the roadside. I breathe out, because a lamb can, if it panics and decides its mother has been left behind, go all the way back to the fell with its head down, oblivious to dogs or men. I have eaten my sandwiches at the fell gate, and the day has cooled. Clouds appear in the western sky. Goldfinches trill excitedly as they flit from one patch of thistle fluff to the next. The long straight road falls away in front of me.
Then the lanes take me down through the allotments or intakes. This is privately owned or farmed land on the lower slopes of the fells or on the moorland (common land once that was divided up so the commoners had an allotment of land each). They are often rocky, heather-covered, semiscrubland and steep. The intakes look similar to the fells but are divided by snaking drystone walls reaching up the fell. Many of these fields were enclosed from the seventeenth century onwards. These were often used for grazing cattle, and unlike the common, these rough fields are farmed by just one farmer.
Taking my sheep down those lanes is what people have done here since it was first settled. That is what these lanes, or outgangs, are for, to let the little farmsteads access the mountain grazing. I am walking in the footsteps of my ancestors and living a thing they lived.
The farm I am heading back down these lanes to was, and in some ways still is, my grandfather's farm; he bought it in the 1960s. It is also my father's farm; he kept it going, paid for it, and added to it with extra land in the 1970s and 1990s. It is also my farm, because I've worked on it with them both since I was a child, and because I have built on it a new farmhouse and buildings and taken my family there to live and spend the rest of my life keeping it going.
The farm we are returning to with the flock is already partly my three children's farm too; they share in its day-to-day life now. They have their own sheep in the flock, so they can start to build them up and learn about the highs and lows of farming. They are expected to work with me as I did with my grandfather and father.
Their sheep are called Moss, Holly, and Loopy Loo. Who am I to argue? It is the same as it was for me when I had two sheep called Betty and Lettuce. It goes on.
Some people's lives are entirely their own creation.
The sheep I am walking back, bought after my test from my neighbour, make it a true fell farm with its own fell-going flock. The sheep she had taken on in the early 1970s (from another noted breeder) were handed on to me. The flocks remain; the people change over time. Someday we will pass them on to someone else.
Like my grandfather, you can farm here on your own land in the valley bottom without taking sheep to the common land on the fells, farming “improved” sheep breeds that don't need to be as tough. He farmed Swaledale ewes and bred hybrid North Country mule lambs to sell each autumn at the big sales at Lazonby in the Eden Valley. The farm he bought had no fell-grazing rights for sale with it. He wasn't really a fell shepherd. He was one step down the mountainside from the fell flocks, buying lambs from the fell farms or selling them tups. He thought that just fine, because farther down the hill was better land and better sheep if you were a progressive mid-twentieth-century farmer like he was.
Swaledales are tough moorland sheep with thick wind-turning fleeces and bold black-and-white markings on the face and legs. These are originally, as the name suggests, the sheep of the Pennines but have become almost universal in the uplands of northern England because they have the ability to breed an incredible hybrid daughter (if mated to the improbable-looking bluefaced Leicester) called a North Country muleâa wonderful sheep with speckled brown, or black, and white faces, and perfect petticoat fleecesâthat go down to the lowlands and provide the breeding flock for the rest of the UK. Swaledales are widely farmed in the Lake District. My grandfather kept these to produce lambs, which he sold each September. And because he produced these crossbred lambs, he had to buy in new draft ewes to refresh the Swaledale flock each year.
These daughters of the mountains are the best commercial ewes money can buy for a lowland farm. They inherit the hardiness and maternal instincts of their mountain mothers, but also the improved growth rate, body, and fine fleece of their lowland fathers. After their youth in the mountains they also do extremely well on almost any other land across the UK, because everywhere else is an improvement. They are a rich, productive harvest from these farmed mountains. So farmers descend on these little auction marts in droves, until the lanes leading to them are choked with traffic. The stereophonic din from the auctioneer echoes out across the pens and surrounding fields. The air is full of the smell we love, the smell of the dipping that crimps their fleeces and colours their wool the brown tea-stained hue that tradition dictates. Their black-and-white speckled faces are scrubbed sparkling clean, and little bits of red and blue woollen thread hang from their necks to show they are the selected top pen or the seconds.
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Farmers from elsewhere have bought the surplus breeding stock produced here for many centuries, as the northern fells are a kind of nursery for the national sheep flock. My grandfather sold sheep each autumn to farms as far afield as Somerset or Kent. It has long been a trading economy: a thousand years ago we were part of a Viking trading world that stretched north around the Atlantic coasts.
Each autumn, farmers from lower, kinder ground buy the spare ewe lambs from the mountains for their flocks, and the male lambs to fatten for meat. This movement is a simple necessity because the mountains can carry many more sheep in the summer than in the winter when the grass disappears. The mountains produce a vast harvest of breeding sheep, meat, and wool. In addition to the lambs sold, because they are surplus to the fell flocks' needs, thousands of young sheep from the mountain flocks were, and still are, wintered on lowland farms with their owners paying by the week for their keep. These sheep go back to the fells the following spring to become the future of the flock, getting back to their heaf just in time for the mountains to turn from blue and brown into summer green.
But in the past decade or so my father and I have deliberately made our farming system more traditional and old-fashioned, returning to a system with minimal external inputs and expenditure because it helps us escape from the spiralling costs that are killing small farms like ours. And because we have slowly learnt that the traditional ways still work.
Taking those steps has been an education, taking us into the common farming life of the fells, and led us to learn a great deal about the system that has survived there. Our land is not one inch closer to the fells than it was years ago, but our relationship with them has changed. I am still learning about this landscape.
For the last half a mile before I reach home I am following lanes flanked by drystone walls, lined with pink foxgloves and ferns. I am now passing between the fields of my neighbours. There is no common land down here. Lake District farms like ours tend to have a small amount of privately owned or managed inbye land, or pasture, in the valley bottoms, divided by drystone walls, hedges, fences, or thorn dykes, giving it that patchwork green-and-pleasant-land effect. This is our land, owned by us, or rented, and where we have to grow any crops we need for winter and where we can best look after young lambs on the ewes in spring. These meadows are vital to the working of a fell farm, and were created so that winter could be survived here. A huge amount of work was invested in making this place farmable, a lot undertaken in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: clearing the fields of trees and boulders; taming the becks and channelling them so they drained the land and didn't wash away the topsoil with each flood; and, building the walls and boundaries, grabbing new bits over time from the forest and scrub, draining the boggy valley bottoms. Without the walls, hedges, and fences, this land would have been grazed all the time with no hay made for winter. It would have been a boom in summer, then a bust in winter. Lack of fodder would have brought starvation for cattle and sheep, and ultimately people.
As I pass down the lane, I see a wall by the lane that I helped build with my grandfather.
I remember him teaching me to wall, starting me off at maybe eight years old, filling in the gaps in the middle with poor little stones, whilst his mole-like hands faced the wall with hard blue stones. Summer is a time for repairs and maintenance. Making good on the damage of the winter passed.
The American poet and sometime farmer Robert Frost wrote a fine poem about mending walls:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
It is true here that “good fences make good neighbours.” My grandfather knew that and wanted me to know it too. I watched him turn the stones over in his hands, looking for walling edge, and place them each in turn into the gap. The plain unloved side of each stone to the interior of the wall, and the “walling face” to the outside edge. He placed in some through stones across the wall to hold it from bellying out in the years to come. He'd encourage me to backfill behind them with smaller stones. Using my smaller hands to make it solid and wedged in place with fist-sized lumps of slate and rock.