Country Living (UK) - - Con­tents - Pho­to­graphs by ALUN CAL­LEN­DER

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.


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