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
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