• 12 Preparing the Herdwick Tups

    With the Keswick Tup Fair coming up it seems fitting to blog this week about what goes into making a tup look good. Last year, we spent a day with James Rebanks at Racy Ghyll farm, and found out:

    I didn’t know what to expect when James asked us if we’d like to join him to prepare his tups for the sales. Just how does a proud Herdwick shepherd spruce up his best rams?

    James has his six choice rams in a pen, at the ready. He chooses one to bring out and, grabbing it by its woolly neck and one robust horn, brings it out of the pen and onto a green metal ramp. It’s a bit like what you might put a car on in the garage so you can get to the under-side, only a lot smaller.

    First, James fastens a thick rope around the sheep’s neck so that it will stay still. Its chin is resting on a cloth-covered bar and it looks at me, quizzically. Next, James jacks up the ramp. With the ram’s feet now at our knee height, James is ready to daub it with colour. He dips his hands into the brick-red chalky ‘reddell’ and smooths it along the ram’s back, leaving a russet band. Over time, the neat red band of colour blends into the fleece, giving a faded pint hue, but for the sales tomorrow, the ram will look almost regal.

    ‘The red colour marks the rams out from the ewes,’ James tells us. ‘Hundreds of years ago they chose this colour as it’s the easiest to spot from the bottom of the fell.’ It’s true: when we have been gathering with farmers we’ve discovered how difficult it can be to tell a sheep from a rock or a tuft of course grass, or even an extension of fell-fog, and a pink or red hue really helps. The smit marks also help farmers locate and identify their fell sheep: lines or dots of colour (it might be blue, orange, red or green) will say whose flock a sheep comes from, whether a ewe is carrying twins or a single lamb, which tup has mated with which ewe, and even which lowland field (in-bye) a ewe was grazing before being turned out to the higher reaches of the fell.

    For these rams, there are no smit marks. The reddell makes their thick fleeces look grand, and now it’s time to clean them up. We slosh some warm water over the fleece and get the fairy liquid out. The whiteness of the head and the legs is an important asset in a good tup. I help with the washing, using a very generous squirt of bright green liquid and some vigorous rubbing to get the mud out of the wool in an oozing, soapy mess. The legs turn out as white as swan’s down. I politely (I hope) leave James to clean off the dags (that’s the dried sheep-shit that accumulates on the wool beneath the tail) but I enjoy the satisfaction of rubbing the legs and the white top knot of the head.

    When we’re done with the ram, the delineation of dark grey back and white head is clear – a fine distinction is important for a prize ram. The legs are shiny, and the reddell makes this ram look like a champion. James checks over the teeth and gives the ram a final stroke, praising it. As we clean each ram, James tells us their history – who their mothers and fathers were, and whether they won prizes, and which hills they grazed on. The bloodline is important, and keeping it strong as well as fresh is an essential skill for a shepherd whose aim it is to breed a prize winning flock. James has a favourite. He’s reluctant to part with him, but probably will. Another, that had recently damaged its horn, may stay back on the farm, so that the wound can heal well.

    When all six rams are clean we herd them, one at a time, into a small area of grass and they gather under a sycamore, proud, strong, red and horned: looking very find indeed. I’m curious to know how much they’ll fetch at Cockermouth auction. When I speak to James later that week, I find out that he was very pleased.

    At this week’s Tup Fair in Keswick there will be judging of the best fleece and the best wintered tups, and farmers will be inspecting one another’s rams and talking about buying or borrowing, or handing back tups that they borrowed in the autumn for their own ewes. It’s all part of maintaining a strong bloodline among the Lake District Herdwicks, and a strong tradition among the Lake District fell farmers. Another tradition that will, unfortunately, probably prevail, is the weather: the forecast is for black clouds, showers and low temperatures. We’ll be dressed up in woollies and waterproofs for sure.

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