Pete shepherds his flock and helps the wildlife to flourish
Pete Godfrey has been a shepherd at RSPB South Stack since September 2009. Here he amswers questions about his life and work.
How did you get to be a shepherd at RSPB South Stack?
RSPB Cymru approached the Anglesey Grazing Animals Partnership (AGAP) looking to employ a shepherd to assist with conservation grazing on the heathland and I was asked to close shepherd a flock of sheep for them.
What are your main duties and responsibilities?
I take the sheep up onto the reserve to graze, with the dogs; I’m responsible for keeping the sheep under control so that they don’t wander. The sheep under my control selectively graze so my dogs and I move the sheep to graze the areas that the warden, Denise Shaw, has identified. So that the sheep can be tracked, I am also responsible for putting a GPS tracker on one of the sheep so that we can see where they graze, for how long and how often. I’m responsible for keeping the sheep together and bringing them all down in the evening.
Describe a day in the life of a shepherd on a nature reserve?
It’s very interesting! I meet people from all over the world at South Stack. If the weather is fine, I can have hundreds of people stopping and asking me about the sheep, the dogs, and the close shepherding. If the weather is bad, I can get on with my shepherding!
You also have your own farm. How different is running that compared to working on a clifftop reserve?
My land is on open mountains, my sheep are “hefted” onto the mountain, which means that the sheep won’t roam because they only know one area from being lambs. The biggest differences are that they aren’t close shepherded; they stay on the mountain from April 1 until the second week of November. The grazing is just to benefit the lambs.
What is your favourite part of the year and why?
Probably lambing time, though I’m not really sure why. I really enjoy this time of year. I think that it is because of the new life being born and everything in nature is coming to life too. It’s the end of winter and spring is on its way.
Some people might view shepherding as being a lonely existence… what do you think about when you’re out with the sheep?
Mostly I concentrate on the dogs, I even chat with them! I’m on my own most of the day, so yes, sometimes it can seem a long day. When the weather is bad the sheep don’t move very much and this can seem like a very long day. My mind often wanders and I think about all sorts of things.
How does the simple act of grazing sheep help with nature conservation?
It takes the vegetation down and clears the thick, matted grass so that the flower seeds underneath can get the light that they need to grow again.
The sheep shorten the grass over the winter months and allow light to penetrate through to the ground allowing germination of the dormant flower seeds. The flowers then shoot up, which encourages the butterflies, bees and other insects. This also has a positive impact on the birds and other wildlife at South Stack.
Also, after the sheep have grazed in this way, the chough will eat the grubs in the sheep dung. Having the sheep is having a massively positive impact for the chough at South Stack.
Heathland habitats have been manipulated by human activity through grazing, cutting and burning for thousands of years which has created the unique habitat and wildlife. Grazing is one of the most effective and sustainable methods of maintaining the habitat. Hebridean sheep are particularly hardy and thrive on nutrient-poor vegetation, so are an ideal breed for grazing on heathlands.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your line of work?
Dealing with visitors is a new experience for me. I do like it but it can be a challenge. People are very interested and want to take pictures of me and the dogs. Though I am trying to shepherd, I also love to see visitors enjoying the reserve. I also enjoy talking to visitors about shepherding and the wonderful wildlife at South Stack. There are a couple of visitors that come every year to see me and the dogs!
RSPB South Stack now run half day Meet the Shepherd Experience events from August 7 to November 24, Monday to Friday, where you can book to spend the morning with me and the dogs working with the sheep. We go and have a nice bowl of soup then for lunch at South Stack cafe. This is all very new for me, though it is challenging. I’m chatting about my favourite thing, shepherding, and to people that are interested, so I really like it.
Is there a difference between mountain shepherding and shepherding on a coastal reserve?
Yes, shepherding on a reserve for conservation is much more targeted and much more controlled.
What do you enjoy most about working at RSPB South Stack?
Denise, the warden. I really like working with Denise but RSPB South Stack is also a wonderful and breathtaking place to work.
Pete Godfrey has been a shepherd at RSPB South Stack since September 2009