• #33 The Shepherd's Life

    If you haven’t already got a copy of The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks, then I advise you to find one, settle down, and start reading. Since its release last week it has caused his twitter following to rise by more than twelve thousand, and its reading on BBC Radio 4 as book of the week has certainly got people talking. He weaves together his and his family’s personal story with the story of the land and the culture of shepherding here, and does it so well it’s hard to put the book down.

    If you know the Lake District well you’ll feel its fresh air, fells, mists and rains as you read the book; if you don’t you may well be packing your bags for your first visit. Either way, however well you feel you know the place, as you turn the pages you’ll learn things you didn't know about the human culture that’s inseparable from the land: the shepherds and their practices that have shaped the landscape for many hundreds of years. It's something that has not been written about enough, and this book puts that to rights.

    We first met James in 2012. At the time he was still tending his flocks while living at a distance from the fell (you’ll learn about the reasons for this separation when you read his book). After walking through the fields and getting wet, very wet, in the process, we sat in a caravan to warm up and talk. The piece writtien after that first interview are on this website here.

    We went on to join him later in the year as he washed his tups, ready for sale at Cockermouth, and have since joined him at shows and auctions. Always the same dedication to the sheep and their place in this beautiful land comes through. ‘People think you are soft in the head, if you tell them your thing is breeding sheep,’ he told me. ‘But that's what we do, and that's what made this landscape. It's a good way to live and I want to keep our little bit of it going. I love this place, it landscape, its people, and, yes, its sheep, more than anything. Helping in however small a way to keep it going feels to me like a life well lived.’

    Our own copy of James’ book has settled into our house well, and seems to sit comfortably on our herdwick wool rug. Quite appropriate really – book and rug are both here only because of the specialised tradition of herdwick farming in Cumbria’s uplands, and both speak of this tradition, one that is key to the Lake District’s bid to be recognised as a World Heritage Site. James has been keen to support this quest. We won’t discover whether WHS status is awarded until 2017, but the process of going through the bid is hugely important. James puts it this way: ‘It’s already changing the emphasis from looking at the Lake District as a natural landscape to one that is a cultural landscape. It would enshrine the importance of farming this landscape in the eyes of the world. ’ Now that James’ book is out, it’s clear that his words, along with his twitter feed (@herdysheperd1) and the broadcast of the book on Radio 4, are all helping to do just this.


    The rug in the top photograph is from woollyrugcompany.com, a company run by the wonderfully creative Jane Exley, who will make bespoke rugs to suit any space, using the traditional wools of the Lake District.

    You can buy the The Shepherd’s Life at any good local bookshop. If you can’t get to your local store, it’s easy to find on amazon.

    And you can buy it as an eBook directly from Penguin.




  • #32 Sheep rescue on Wordsworth's patch

    It’s a random phone call from an unknown number. ‘Oh, hello. I wonder if you can help. I am walking on the way to Stone Arthur and there’s a sheep stuck on a rock in the middle of a river, that’s quite torrential.’

    It’s not the first time this has happened, and calls like this go to show the power of the internet – somehow, someone out there has wondered how to find a Lake District farmer, and ended up calling us. I put down the piece of toast I am eating and think about what I can do. I ask for the Grid Reference and take action: phone the farmer whose flock grazes in that area.

    The year now is 2015. There’s a strange connection over time between today’s event and an event that Wordsworth wrote about in his Prelude, just over two hundred years ago, in 1805. He recounted a story he had been told about a sheep that was isolated on a rock in a stream, water running full and fierce after a period of heavy rain. A farmer and his son went out to find their missing sheep. Unable to find it, the farmer walked back down the valley, but his son continued to look and eventually found the sheep:

    Down the deep channel of the stream he went,

    Prying through every nook; meanwhile the rain

    Began to fall upon the mountain-tops –

    Thick storm and heavy which for three hours’ space

    Abated not – and all that time the boy

    Was busy in his search, until at length

    He spied the sheep upon a plot of grass,

    An island in the brook. It was a place

    Remote and deep, plied round with rocks where foot

    Of man or beast was seldom used to tread*

    Wordsworth conjured up a scene that might well be the scene witnessed by the walker today. Now, as then, the fells take rain hour after hour, day after day, and let it loose through becks that can swell from tiny ribbons to wide broiling surges. Wordsworth doesn’t name the beck but we can hazard a guess about its location, thanks to insights from the local farmers. Earlier this year we sat in the reading room of the Wordsworth Trust with ten farmers while the curator of the collection, Jeff Cowton, read this passage out from one of the earliest editions of The Prelude. We were all attentive, thoughtful. I watched as the farmers listened to the description of the land and sensed the activity behind their eyes as they drew visual maps in their minds. They reckoned the beck Wordsworth was referring to was one that flowed in the fells behind Dove Cottage in Grasmere, and still flows today. The beck – and the sheep – at the centre of today’s concern are on the same sloping fellside.

    Back in Wordsworth’s time there would have been few walkers and certainly no mobile phones. He tells us that, on seeing the sheep, the farmer’s young son ‘leapt upon the island with proud heart’. Unfortunately, the sheep immediately bounded forward and over the water to its own safety, but the boy remained stranded, ‘A prisoner on the island, not without / More than one thought of death and his last hour.’ The story has a happy ending: the farmer goes back out to seek his son and does find him, instilling in him the courage to jump back to safety.

    And today’s stranded sheep? Once alerted, the farmer set off to find the castaway. ‘It likely had been swept down the gyhll,’ he told me, ‘under the bridge and down, and then found its way onto the rock.’ The water was raging white, he told me, and it wasn’t the easiest of rescues – he ended up very wet himself. His suspicion was that the sheep had been there some time.

    One of the farm’s stock of breeding ewes, it had been turned out to the fell just before Christmas, and is carrying a lamb (or two). It is safe now and has hungrily tucked in to some food. Its condition will be revealed when it is scanned. Until then, it seems the rescue was well made and made just in time – quick thinking from a passing walker and the simple act of picking up a phone may have saved the life of a ewe and the next generation she is carrying. And in the meantime storm force winds are picking up, and the fells shoulder hail, sleet and snow. The flocks of the Lake District will hunker down and see the winter through.

    *William Wordsworth, The Prelude edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, Penguin 1995. This text is from the 1805 version.



  • #31 The hill farming year begins

    After a wonderfully successful run at Low Sizergh Barn, the Land Keepers exhibition is on the move again - from October 2nd - November 2nd it will be on show at the National Trust's Wray Castle, near Hawkshead. we're in the process now of bringing together items from some of the National Trust owned farms to add to the display of photographs and writing.

    We're also looking ahead to exhibiting at London's Royal Geographical Society, from November 17-23. A great chance to take the story about hill farming into the capital.

    Meanwhile, life on the hills goes on in accordance with the farming year, and that is about to start in earnest with the Tup Sales at Broughton next week. We'll be there to catch up with farmers and find out who's buying and who's selling which tups. The auction mart at Broughton is small and enclosed, with a cosy, intimate feel and tension arises along with silence as the bids get higher for some of themost sought after tups.

    We'll be posting pictures and reflections about the day as we, and the farmers, look ahead to the season when tups are carefully paired with ewes, and the breeding season begins.


    1 comment

  • #30 Fell Gather Event at Grasmere, August 7 2014

    Today, the sun shone strong, making the vale of Grasmere glisten green. From a field on the edge of the village, Silver Howe looked splendid above Easedale. But we weren’t here for walking – we were here for an event celebrating upland farming. The Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association were staging a Fell Gather event at Knott Houses, a farm run by Peter Bland. Peter is a member of a family that has for generations been respected for breeding superior Herdwick sheep, and those on show today, ranging from dark brown lambs born this April to prize-winning tups (rams), showed off the attributes of the iconic herdwick brilliantly.

    The event was arranged to introduce non-farmers to the ins and outs of upland farming. In the pens, with a selection of Peter Bland’s sheep around him, Will Rawling (who farms close to the west coast in Ennerdale) gave a running commentary. While Peter sheared sheep, and their fleeces were lobbed into the watching crowd, Will spoke about the practice of shearing (with electric shears) and clipping (hand shears). He talked about the way the Herdwicks change colour over time, from black to brown to grey; where their name comes from (the Norse ‘wick’ means ‘clearing’, while ‘herd’ is a gathering of livestock); the farming year; the way farming is balanced with biodiversity; the market for Herdwick products; and more.

    With the sheep clipped, Jean Wilson joined in to demonstrate the preparation of a sheep for showing and for sale. Out came the hot soapy water and she washed its heads and legs to bring out the white. Then she used raddle to add a rusty red colour to the sheep’s back. It reminded me of the time I helped James Rebanks to prepare his tups for sale – very satisfying it was to see a dull grey transform to white, and the sheep take on a lordly appearance with the raddle. A farmer mentioned recently that he knew someone who spent 40 hours using tweezers on a Swaledale to ensure there were no white hairs sullying the darker areas, or vice versa. It gets to be a serious business when you’re proud of your stock.

    Clipper's Tools

    Listening to talk of chops, roasts, stews and kebabs and seeing the sheep from the inside out, might have once made me slightly uneasy. But it doesn’t any more – it’s the natural progression from life to death and it’s good to witness this emphasis on maintaining and marketing a high quality product that’s not only delicious, but is also the backbone of the living landscape of Cumbria. The sheep on the fells may unwittingly be heading ultimately to abattoir, shop and plate, but their presence is part of a culture and passion for shepherding that is interwoven with the hills as surely as the weather that continues to stock the lakes and keep the valleys green.

    Gaining PDO status for Lakeland Herdwick meat is not something that has happened over night. There has been a long journey to get here – a journey that has taken just over ten years. The first seeds were sown by Herdwick specialist Geoff Brown with farmers including Dorothy Wilkinson from Tilberthwaite. Over the years many others have pressed on with the cause, including vet Amanda Carson, members of the Farmer Network including Will Rawling, Spencer Hannah from the Herdy Company, Mary Houston from Taste Cumbria, and Prince Charles, who is a staunch supporter. In fact the Princes Countryside Fund continues to support hill farming in Cumbria and the development of a brand for Herdwicks as the guardians of the fells.

    But of course it’s not all about showing and pride. If it weren’t for the meat market, there would be no sheep on these hills. So this event was a showcase for livestock and meat - further down the field, meat taken from sheep reared right here at Knott Houses was being served. Pulled shoulder in a roll with pickled cabbage and delicious sauces; chops done to your liking; terrine. The meat is distinctively rich, and very lean – that’s what you get from a sheep who works hard to stay fit and well in the challenging terrain and weather of the central Lake District fells.

    And this distinction is being recognised. Lakeland Herdwick is the first breed of sheep in the UK to receive the coveted recognition of PDO or ‘protected designation of origin’ for its lamb and mutton. It qualifies for PDO when it’s born here, bred here and slaughtered here, and this journey from fell to plate, ensures the meat will reach a high standard. It is being ordered and celebrated in top London restaurants including the Shard. Strangely, there is less take up for certified local (and delicious) Herdwick meat in Cumbria. Recent surveys showed that there’s a bit of complacency, even apathy, among local restaurants, who feel so sure of a high through-put of tourists that they’re not rushing to offer something special. In addition to this, if you look at the figures of Herdwick meat produced, and Herdwick meat sold in restaurants, they don’t match – which is why the establishment of the PDO status is so welcome. If it’s certified, it’s Herdwick. If it doesn’t bear the mark, it may not be, which would leave someone thinking they’d tasted Herdwick when they haven’t. If you have, you’ll know how different it tastes from non-Herdwick lamb from unspecified sources.

    Following the Fell Gather, which drew in more than 400 people, and was also a showcase for wool products, the event continued in the barns set above the field for farmers, chefs, restauranteurs, National Park officers and others involved in the farming sector. There was a lot of chat, but it wasn’t just about catching up. Steve Powdrill of Eblex (The organisation of the English Beef and Sheep industry) gave a presentation about getting the most, in terms of quality meat, out of your sheep. He talked about the classification of lamb shed light on ways to look at a live animal, and see the cuts that would come from the dead animal: when to know it’s at its optimum; how to recognise too little or too much fat; which cuts the public want; etc.

    For the farmers, most of what was said would have felt like common sense, although there is still a tendency for markets to call for higher weights even though this may mean a higher quantity of fat (which in the long run is neither good for profit nor for consumption). Steve explained carefully how to gauge the fat-muscle ratio. Phrases like ‘feeling the fatness of the jigger’ and knowing that it’s right if the ‘docks are just past twelve o’clock’ began to make sense to me with the assistance of pictures and models. (if you want to learn more, there’s a brochure on line at the Eblex website).

    Tim Brown serves up Herdwick: pulled shoulder, chops & terrine

    After the presentation, beer and conversation flowed with the gentle breeze that crept in as the sun dipped. Talk turned to the value of the meat and of the sheep on the fells, and the weekend weather and potential for gathering in the stragglers that have yet to be sheared. After a few weeks away from the fells, coming back to the county and immediately heading to this event felt like a reconnection with the land and its community: Blands, Dickinsons, Bensons, Hartleys, Rawling, Richardsons, Rebanks, Wilsons ... There’s common ground in stride and breath, and scent of sheep shit in the pens became woven with voices and laughter to bind the air around us. A sense of belonging, cradled in the yard.

    I passed Peter Bland a picture of a tup, a close-up shot that Rob took at the Keswick May Fair in 2012. I wasn’t sure whose hands they were tucked beneath the white face of the ram. As soon as he saw the picture, Peter smiled. ‘That's my hands,’ he said, ‘and Kevin's tup - almost won the Edmonson cup that one did.’ He walked over to a group of four farmers and held it up. ‘See this Kevin, we're famous!’

    Famous, maybe not, but in time the Herdwick products, including meat and the wool that is being made into tweeds, jackets, bags, carpets and pillows, may become better known and in greater demand. Behind the scenes of the gentle perseverance and the predictable yearly calendar of shepherds a lot of work is going on to develop these products. This is not just a matter of pride. Establishing kudos is a powerful way of helping to ensure an economically viable future for the hill farmers and their flocks, and their continuation on the fells of Cumbria.


    Taste Cumbria

    Princes Countryside Fund

    Herdy Company

    Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association

    Airey's Farm Shop (and abattoir for PDO Herdwick lamb and mutton)

    Wools of Cumbria Carpets

    Shepherdess (tweeds, clothes, bags)

    Woolly Rug Company


    Taste the Difference

    If you haven’t already tasted Herdwick, why not try some? It’s available in several locations in Cumbria, notably The Flock Inn, Borrowdale; Yew Tree Farm, Coniston; Fornside Farm, St John’s in the Vale; Airey’s, High Newton; and Booths do stock it. Cook it gently – it needed take long: pan fry a chop, or roast a small joint in 30 minutes – and savour it at leisure.

    PDO - Protected Designation of Origin

    Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) is one of the regimes under the Protected Geographical Status (PGS) legal framework defined in European Union law to protect the names of regional foods.

    The Regulations for PDO cite consumer demand for quality foodstuffs and identify a number of goals for the protection regime:

    • the promotion of products with specific characteristics, particularly those coming from less-favoured or rural areas;

    • the improvement of the income of farmers, in return for a "genuine effort to improve quality";

    • the retention of population in rural areas;

    • the provision of clear and succinct information to consumers regarding product origin.



  • #29 Exhibition up at Low Sizergh Barn

    After what seems to have been a really well received exhibition at the Wordsworth Museum, from February until May this year, the Land Keepers images and words are now on show at Low Sizergh Barn just outside Kendal. They’re on the walls of the barn’s café, which not only serves delicious cakes and lunches, but also has a glass wall overlooking the milking parlour where the farm’s herd are milked twice daily. It’s quite a draw for kids!

    We feel very privileged to have been asked to hang the work here. Low Sizergh Barn is passionate about supporting local and sustainable food, and honouring the work of farmers, particularly those in Cumbria. The exhibition will stay in place until the end of September, after which it moves on to the National Trust’s Wray Castle.

    Visit Low Sizergh Barn's Website



  • #28 Fun with Schools

    After a busy couple of years out and about with farmers, it was time for us to bring farmers and schools together.

    With the wonderful support of the Wordsworth Trust, the early part of 2014 was taken up with a flurry of activity with primary and secondary schools brining photography, poetry, landscape and farming together. While the Land Keepers exhibition was on show in the Wordsworth Museum, we worked with seven schools. Each school had a two day programme: day one at the Wordsworth Trust, day two on a farm.

    In Grasmere we took them round the exhibition and they also had a guided tour around Wordsworth’s house, Dove Cottage. The location was ideal for stimulating thoughts about our perception of the land and how artists and writers have experienced and presented it in the past. Questions came thick and fast: questions about sheep and about farming and the Cumbrian uplands, about how to take good photographs and what makes a good poem.

    On day two the children visited a farm where they were shown round by the farmer. At each farm they were shown the livestock, had a chance to walk around the land into the surrounding fields, learn about the intakes and fell land, lambing, shearing, markets, wool and more. It was a real hands-on experience for them and Patterdale School particulary became quite closely involved as they were sorted in the sheep pens: girls, boys and runts (the teachers of course)!

    After their farm visit the children went back to school and we worked with them on written and illustrated pieces to capture their experiences. They continued to work with their teachers and produced a wonderful range of pieces that were exhibited at The Wordsworth Trust in the Spring. Felt panels, watercolours, photographs, 3D scuptures, poems, videos and even a dress …

    With the presentation of their Arts Awards this month, the process seemed to have been completed – although it wasn’t. For many children seeds have been sown: interest in farming, curiosity about the land and how we use it, sparks of enthusiasm for photography or writing. Time will tell what impact their visits really had.



  • #27 Waiting for the lambs

    On most upland farms, the wait is still on for the lambs to arrive. One or two have come, but next week should see the start of the very busy days and nights as the Herdwick ewes begin to give birth. The farmers I have seen recently have been busy fetching their hoggs (year old lambs) from their winter pastures, vaccinating, and trying to get all the necessary jobs done before the lambs arrive. And among these jobs is the care of cows and their young.

    On Hannah Dickinson's farm, several calfs have arrived in the last few weeks. This reminded me of the first time I had ever been to Brockstones, in 2012, when I met Hannah and her partner Stephen using a dead calf's skin to dress another young calf, to put to a surrogate mother. I looked back in my books for the notes I made.

    "We arrive a little earlier than we had said we would – more towards 1pm than 1.30pm. There’s a dead newborn calf, already skinned, hanging by its back legs from the uplifted arms of a forklift truck. The skin is taken to a young heifer, 6 weeks old, that’s one of a set of twins and isn’t growing well. Hannah and her partner prize the skin over the calf’s head, and pass its front legs, one by one, through the leg holes. It fits snugly like a sleeveless pullover.

    Still red wet with calf blood. Hannah’s work-strong hands pat the heifer in the trailer, and she drives him round to the cow who waits to be his surrogate mother. The cow licks the back end of the calf, on the skin of her dead newborn. ‘Leave em for a bit now, and see how they do.’

    Hannah explained that the other cow was struggling to feed her two twins. It’s unusual to put a calf to a surrogate mother at the age of 6 weeks, but worth a try.

    There’s a constant background noise of dogs barking. In the sand pit beside the barns – a pile of sand used presumably for building and maybe cement making – sparrows take dust baths by the side of unturned trucks and tractors, the toys of the farm / Hannah’s children.

    A crow pokes its head out of a hole in the barn’s end wall, and flies off.

    There’s a nip in the air – more than a nip actually – and it’s cold. I didn’t bring my hat, nor did I wear my wind-proof and slightly thermal trousers. I regretted it !'

    That young calf fared well ...



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