• 2 Gathering

    This blog was originally posted in September, on the somewhere-nowhere website (blog #29)

    I have to admit to feeling a bit tired, and a bit sore in the legs today, having been out on the hills gathering sheep from the commons above Kentmere, thanks to Hannah Dickinson. I thought it would be nice to put two pictures up – one of the view from the tops, and one of the view from the bottom, after we’d brought the sheep in.

    Out there on the exposed backs of the fells, with views stretching for miles in every direction and a soft light teasing shadows across high tarns, I became entranced, once again, by the art of shepherding. In these Lakeland fells the only way to bring the sheep in is on foot and this lends a gentle simplicity to a task that is hugely demanding, and complex. Men and women (women are some of the most revered fell farmers, today and in the past) with sticks, dogs and an affinity with the land and the stock: this is the way it has been done for centuries, and the way it still works today. The sound of whistles, whoops, shepherds’ calls and sheep bleats drifting up on the light wind could have been exactly the same hundreds of years ago.

    The farmers take bold, confident strides. Richard almost skips downhill, oblivious to loose rocks it seems, red crook in his hand, dogs zig-zagging around his feet. Hannah scans the land, we chat, and occasionally she calls to her dogs, or lets out her own high whoop to encourage the sheep to move forward and down. The pace is fast but it’s also gentle; the sky is big, the view is wide open, the sound of the beck, tumbling from Small Water towards Haweswater, echoes through the land, and I’m moving with it.

    The total land that Hannah needs to gather is over 700 hectares. That’s a very big area for 6 people. The farmers work in formation so that the sheep are gathered from all possible corners and driven into the valley bottom. The farmers below in the valley or above on rocky outcrops are silhouette figures each with a stick or crook, and their 3 or 4 dogs circling around. The sheep gradually push downwards.

    Sounds simple, but the valleys are big, the hillsides rocky, and the sheep single minded. Under foot, we’re seldom on paths, and the land slopes so we walk on angles and loose stones, come across bogs, rough tufted grass, streams and even badgers sets – all a challenge to the ankles. The ability to gather takes sure feet, a quick eye, the skill to call to and work with 3, 4, 5 or more dogs at a time, and a knowledge of land and sheep: things that are born of experience that stretches back generations. Hannah is the fourth generation of her family to live and work here, and her father is with us today, an agile 70-ish year old who sets a mean pace and has me puffing at his heels.

    It takes us a little over two hours to drive the bulk of the sheep to the lower ground at the head of the valley. Here the gentleness of the gather is replaced by high energy, speed, and a lot more noise. There’s a big outcrop, ‘the tongue’, at the valley head and getting the sheep from here means climbing up and down crags and pushing through bracken. Everyone works together, and sheep are cajoled and chased, until a glut of three hundred or more are butting up against a gate, kept from turning tail and going back onto the fell by a line of people and dogs.

    Finally, the sheep are in pens and Hannah is separating those that need dipping from the rest. A couple of walkers approach along the track. Hannah’s partner asks them to wait a moment, by the side of the lane, so they don’t hinder the sheep (if they are in the middle of the lane, the sheep will stay back). They do, and the sheep begin to pass. When the flow of sheep quietens down the couple start to walk on. The woman turns towards us, with a look of disdain and a sneer in her eyes and says, snidely, ‘Can we go now?’ Without waiting for an answer, she wags a single raised index finger and offers a sarcastic ‘Thank you’.

    I’m impressed when the farmers hold their tongues – my hackles are up. I know it’s not the norm, but they tell me that they encounter this kind of attitude quite a lot. I ask myself, how can walkers who enjoy this landscape behave in such a way towards the very people who are most closely connected to it, who care for it with such rare dedication, with precious knowledge and skills? They are at the heart of the land, there’s is a culture that is as integral to this region as the plants that grow here, and the water that flows here.

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