A SHEP­HERD’S LIFE

James Re­banks’s fam­ily have been work­ing the land in and around the Lake District for 600 years. In a series of ex­clu­sive col­umns, he takes us through the sea­sons of the sheep-farm­ing year

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

Lake District farmer James Re­banks takes us through the sheep­farm­ing year. This month: sur­viv­ing the win­ter

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 re­turned to the farm and wrote two best­selling nov­els about the life he leads there, steeped in tra­di­tion and the lore of the land. This month, he de­scribes the tri­als of sheep farm­ing in some of the harsh­est con­di­tions in the coun­try.

The high fells of the Lake District are the tough­est area imag­in­able for sheep to live in win­ter. It isn’t the coldest place on earth, nor close to it, but it’s the com­bi­na­tion of icy tem­per­a­tures, damp and wind that is the real trial. It gets in the bones of men and sheep, and at its worst it can be fa­tal.

I’m told the Rus­sians hate such con­di­tions; they call it ‘English weather’. They much pre­fer when it gets far colder, the ground be­comes hard and you know where you are with it. Mi­nus 20 de­grees is at least dry-cold – with a good jacket, ther­mal un­der­wear, and hat and gloves on, you can man­age fine.

The damp tough­ness of these win­ters is why we keep Herd­wick sheep. They are the na­tive breed of the Lake District and have evolved to cope. Es­sen­tially, they are hard as nails, hav­ing en­dured these win­ters for at least a thou­sand years, if not much longer. They have Vik­ing sheep blood in their veins;

some of their an­ces­tors came on boats with the Norse­men.

These sheep have two jobs: to sur­vive the win­ters with as lit­tle as­sis­tance as pos­si­ble and pro­duce a good lamb or two in the spring. To get through the win­ter they have deep, thick, wiry slate-grey coats that the rain runs straight off, and an un­der­coat of finer wool to in­su­late them for warmth in the snow. It’s for this rea­son that Herd­wick wool makes the best hard­wear­ing car­pets in the world, and amaz­ing, tough and stylish tweed. The meat they pro­vide is also some of the tasti­est and health­i­est lamb and mut­ton avail­able. Due to the com­bi­na­tion of the tough con­di­tions the sheep are reared in and their grass-based moun­tain di­ets, the fat it con­tains is much bet­ter for you than other an­i­mal fats.

Win­ter wears the flock down slowly but surely, not least be­cause they be­come more and more preg­nant as the win­ter passes. It takes its toll. Their backs are nar­row, and their spines

start to be­come more prom­i­nent, the wool part­ing ei­ther way from their lean bod­ies in the rain. So we try to keep our flock young. The ewes are ‘drafted’ and sold to the low­lands when they are five or six years old for the sec­ond half of their breed­ing lives. We give the re­main­ing young sheep hay through­out win­ter to help hold their con­di­tion and give them a chance to feed the grow­ing lambs they’re car­ry­ing.

Win­ter days can feel like Ground­hog Day. The same thing again and again. We get up and take hay and feed to the sheep. We stum­ble through mud, snow or pud­dles. Sheep crowd around our legs, des­per­ate for the feed, trip­ping us up and push­ing us along in a tide of wool. We lead out a cou­ple of hun­dred tons of hay each win­ter by hand, slices stacked on the back of the quad bike or in the trailer. We trek up the lanes, and across the fields to the hayracks with our loads. If the ewes are full of sweet-smelling meadow hay, then they can cope with the scarce graz­ing and bit­ter cold and wet. As the slices burst open, you can see lit­tle pressed yel­low and blue flow­ers in the dried grass as a re­minder of dis­tant sum­mer days.

On oc­ca­sions when the snow comes down fast, I have to get to the sheep and move them to pas­tures lower down the hill be­fore the drifts be­come too deep and dan­ger­ous. Some­times when it is too thick for the quad bike, I have had to wade through on

THIS PAGE AND OP­PO­SITE Hav­ing thrived in harsh con­di­tions for hun­dreds of years, Herd­wick sheep are able to en­dure each win­ter on acres of icy moor­land with min­i­mal as­sis­tance – but when they do re­quire help, Floss, Tan and Meg are ready and will­ing

foot, snow whirling in my face and stick­ing to my eye­lashes, be­fore lead­ing the sheep back along my foot­steps. Luck­ily there’s usu­ally a wise older ewe who un­der­stands what I’m do­ing and leads the pack.

There’s a val­ley a mile or two from here where the sheep sur­vived buried in the snow for a cou­ple of months in 1963. The old men say the an­i­mals stayed alive by eat­ing moss, tree roots and even the wool off their own backs. Herd­wicks are su­per-tough and fell-smart, and have the in­stincts to sur­vive.

On snowy days it’s a bless­ing to get back to the barn, and the quiet and shel­ter. Some days even my sheep­dogs, Floss, Tan and Meg, look sick of the weather, and are ready for be­ing back in their ken­nels to dry off. Win­ter work makes your hands swollen, your face wind-blown, blotchy and red, and your hair tas­selled and scruffy.

Christ­mas ar­rives in the depths of the sea­son, so we have to start the day hay­ing the sheep and check­ing they’re okay like any other morn­ing. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. My chil­dren are ex­pected to help us do the work, as I was when I was young. Then it’s back to the farm­house to warm up, open presents and later en­joy a well-earned din­ner. It’s cus­tom­ary for farmer dads to eat far too much turkey, Christ­mas pud­ding and Terry’s Choco­late Orange be­fore fall­ing asleep af­ter watch­ing the Queen’s speech. I’m a stick­ler for tra­di­tion, so I do all this, plus loud snor­ing.

I have al­ways thought that win­ter is some­thing you have to en­dure to feel like you’ve earned the brief sum­mers we get. It

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