A SHEPHERD’S LIFE
This month: AUTUMN TUP SALES
Farmer James Rebanks works the same hillside in Cumbria that his family has owned for centuries. Here, in a series of four exclusive columns, he takes us through the key seasons of the sheep-farming year
Farmer James Rebanks’s family have been working the land in and around the Lake District for 600 years. In a series of four exclusive columns, he takes us through the key seasons of the sheep-farming year
Like his family before him, James farms hefted sheep – animals so bonded with a particular area of land, they will return to the same spot without guidance, generation after generation. Having achieved a double first at Oxford University, James came back to the farm and wrote two bestselling books about the life he leads there, steeped in tradition and the lore of the land. This month he describes the annual ram sales that draw sheep farmers from miles around. They come from across the North; from tiny isolated valleys in the Pennines, where there is nothing but moorland, heather, sheep and endless grey skies filled with the sound of curlews. They come from the countless farmsteads by the roads we have travelled between Appleby and Hawes. They come from bleak hillsides in Northumberland and southern Scotland. They even come from the tourist valleys of the Lake District.
This is Hawes tup sale. Along with the auction mart at Kirkby Stephen, this is one of two Meccas for the Swaledale sheep breed we farm. There is hardly a hill or bit of moorland in northern England that isn’t represented here by its shepherds. Every little road that leads to Hawes has been busy all morning, a flowing river of Land Rovers and livestock trailers. And with every vehicle passed, a hand is raised in recognition of friends or rivals. The little town clogs up with fell farmers staying in the B&BS and guesthouses – and draining the pubs dry in the evening. All wear the farming uniform: smart ‘auction boots’, waterproof coats and trousers, flat caps and best crooks, with sheepdogs or sheep’s heads carved on their horn handles. They tend to have ruddy wind-chapped faces and big rough working hands. The old men walk stiffly with bent backs – this life takes its toll. Swaledale sheep are among the hardiest in the UK – bred from native stock over centuries to not only survive but be productive in some of the windiest and wettest upland areas of the country. Livestock like this doesn’t happen by accident; it is the work of shepherds who make thousands of selective breeding judgements over hundreds of years. The key ones are made at these sales of the tups, or rams, each autumn.
Inside the mish-mash of buildings, I have to prise my way through the throng of shepherds. I’m heading for the main pen where the crowd’s rapt attention is fixed on one ram. Its head is thrust
through a gap in the rails, a knarled hand under its chin. This tup has a big white nose and black face, with two white bespectacled eyes. The black hair on the head is matt, as it should be, not glossy. I know the standard of this sheep must be exceptional because the pen is buzzing with excitement. The ram’s owner – one of the great female shepherds, Christine Clarkson – stands patiently telling dozens of potential buyers the sheep’s pedigree.
There is something almost religious about the way people live for these gatherings. Their whole year revolves around this moment when their work is seen by hundreds of people they respect and admire. We say a tup is ‘half the flock’. This isn’t male chauvinism, it’s true; he brings half of the genetic package, and mates with up to and beyond 100 ewes, so he is naturally worth a lot more than a ewe, who only has one or two lambs a year. To improve a flock, you buy a tup from a better flock than your own. It’s not unheard of for a good ram to fetch more than £40,000.
The different flocks come to the ring one after another, from dozens of farms – their names flowing off the tongue: Aygill, Long Green, Bull and Cave, Mosedale, Howe Green, Caitlaw, Barras and Westco. All synonymous with the centuries-old farming families that work them – Brogden, Marwood, Sowerby, Buckle, Slack, Rukin, Whitehead, Alderson and Cockbains. Together they sound like a kind of poetry of the fells.
The auctioneer, Raymond Lund, keeps up a running banter with the crowd, occasionally stopping to tell a joke or make a quip. He is one of the best in Britain, a born entertainer with the gambler’s bravado that a great auctioneer needs, allowing him to sell one of the most important sheep in the country with the odd one-liner thrown in. Mid-sale, he tells an older shepherd that he’s out of the bidding, but it is OK because his son behind him is still bidding defiantly, and everyone laughs, including the father.
An elderly Lake District shepherd called Peter Lightfoot is doing his best to tell the young shepherds they are breeding sheep
with legs that are too white. But they aren’t listening – fashions come and go and the young don’t always pay attention to advice from their elders. Another respected shepherd from Brough is speaking quietly in the corner. Because he is so modest, he follows everything he says with the comment that he doesn’t know much himself, but everyone knows to listen carefully to what he says.
Swaledales need to be practical first: a good meaty, long body; four straight thick-set legs; short, tough teeth to graze moorland vegetation; and a tight gale-breaking fleece. But all these sheep have these basic attributes, so we look for added factors like the brightness of the white nose, ears and spectacles, and the cleanness of the white bits from black hairs. (Farmers are frequently known to cheat to enhance this effect using tweezers to ‘tonse’ or remove stray black hairs.) We also look at how the ram carries itself – the best sheep have a sense of style and character. A well-thought-of shepherd called Frank Brennan tells me, “It’s no good them being shy; a tup should get about with his head high above the ewes like he’s the boss.”
The fortunes of the different flocks wax and wane with each passing autumn, some rising and others falling from grace. Today, the Ewbank brothers have a great day, taking the championship in the morning’s judging and then selling their tups for great prices – £34,000 for the champion. My own success has been more moderate. After several days of sales, when I couldn’t get what I felt we needed, I grew frustrated and doubled my budget to buy a sheep I really liked – a big strong tup from Allison’s of Telfit Farm that came in the ring with his head high and proud. We won’t know for at least two years whether I have made a good choice, and maybe not for five or six years when his daughters are mature ewes.
It is a long drive home to Matterdale, but I won’t see many of my shepherding friends for another year, so maybe I’ll go and have a beer with them. A long, isolating winter follows these sales.
See our December issue to read James’s next column about farming the fells in the depths of winter. The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District is published by Penguin for £8.99.