• 10 Gathering from the winter fells

    Words and pictures by Rob. Click on any of the images to see them larger.

    Just before ending the phone conversation I slipped in one final question.

    ‘Will I need to bring my crampons, Gavin?’

    ‘Crampons?’ he replied with a chuckle, ‘You won’t be needing them, we won’t be going anywhere stupid, like.’

    Fast forward to the next day. I am toiling behind shepherd Gavin Bland and his two lean dogs through knee-deep snowdrifts. We reach the edge of a small cornice and peer down on to somewhere ‘stupid’. A short section of steep, snow covered scree that falls away for a couple of hundred metres, and we are about to cross it. On a normal winter walk, without any of the appropriate gear, I would have turned away. But this was no normal walk, so I drew a long breath and dropped over the edge.

    A long thirty seconds of adrenalin-fuelled concentration later and we were gratefully over and on solid rock, and staring at the next snow gully in front of us. This, I thought, was a heck of a way to gather sheep.

    Beetling around the 700-metre line, below the glowering faces of High Crag and Nethermost Pike on the Helvellyn range, the views were absolutely breathtaking. The snow-marbled panorama took in Fairfield, St Sunday Crag and the famous Striding Edge. The air was still and clear, allowing the soft bleat of herded sheep to carry up to us from way below, whilst above, a pair of gronking ravens languidly cruised round the dark slabs, jet-black specks against a solid grey gloom.

    We were here - precariously here to be more precise - to help bring in a flock of Swaledales for Gavin’s neighbor, Geordie Andrew, ready for them to lamb in the walled in fields of the lower valley, and a smaller number of Gavin’s own Herdwick ewes. Andrew farms out of Braesteads at the head of Grisedale Valley, above Patterdale village. In all, nine shepherds came together to bring the sheep in, working about 20 dogs.

    Gavin called to his dogs from time to time to move the few sheep we encountered downwards from the heights. And he found the energy to keep up a gentle conversation with me. He talked about the poor start to the lambing season, the lack of food for the expectant ewes, about him giving up cakes, and his passion for fell running. I listened and occasionally answered from behind; I couldn’t afford to waste my breath on talk.

    The pace was steady, but relentless. Up, up, up, followed by an along, a down or two, and then another series of climbs. I stopped frequently to raise the Nikon camera to my eye to shoot Gavin on the move, then I would have to scurry a little to catch up with the shepherd before he disappeared over another edge. Occasionally he stopped to scour the land for sheep, his hawk-sharp eyes able to spot them from several hundred metres away. I was always grateful for this respite; the stops gave me time to shoot a more static subject and let my heartbeat settle down to a safer figure.

    Meanwhile, out of sight on the valley floor, Harriet was helping drive the sheep with Gavin’s father, David. I later discovered that her day had been a lot less strenuous than mine, quite relaxing in fact.

    The last hour of driving was the toughest. Gavin had kept us high up on the bowl below Striding Edge and we were crossing an ankle–testing mix of loose scree, iced boulders and greased-grass. The final climb was onto the shoulder above Hole-in-the-Wall to meet with a first true path in well over an hour. From this point the dogs were sent off left and right to gently urge the sheep to scamper down the fell.

    I had made the mistake of forgetting to pack any food and I could feel my energy level all but drained. I carried a rucksack full of camera gear to record the day, but not one single snack bar or banana. A lesson learnt the hard way.

    Gradually the shepherds all came together. Just shy of two hundred sheep were forced into the walled enclosure where it met with Grisedale Beck. But the day did not finish there: it would be another 90 minutes before we made it to the kitchen table in Gavin’s farm; it felt like a long walk back over the pass above Grisedale Tarn, and down to the shores of Thirlmere.

    On the way back we passed by the Brothers’ Parting Stone, a monument erected in 1880 to commemorate the last time that poet William Wordsworth was to see his brother John, before the latter was killed in a naval battle. Glancing across at the stone it occurred to me that the way of working this landscape, of gathering in the sheep, has probably not changed since their final farewell.

    For five hours we were out on the fells. For me it was five tough, energy-draining hours. It was work, but not your run-of-the-mill, everyday work. I was in the company of a man who is passionate about his sheep and a proud advocate of the hill farming culture. I feel privileged to be part of something quite special.


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