• 22 Up and down and up again ...

    It's about one o'clock in the afternoon. I'm sitting on the fell above Seathwaite looking across to the snow sprinkled range of Scafell, Scafell Pike and Great End. The light on the lower fells lies golden in the dry bracken, and a couple of hundred ewes in the rough and sloping inbye beside us bray and bleat as they settle in. I'm eating a couple of pieces of chocolate regaining some energy - we've brought these ewes in over the last three hours, running over moss and stone, up and down gullies and covering a vast area of moor and fellside that are part of the land farmed from Turner Hall.

    Anthony Hartley, whose farm it is, and Andrew, who has been working on this farm for twenty years, have worked tirelessly today each with their three dogs, to coax ewes down the hill. Rob and I have been running around with them, and often after them, occasionally helping out by blocking the route for any sheep that might fancy heading back up the hill, instead of moving downwards.

    Anthony and Andrew are relaxed, savouring a warm cup of tea and quietly taking in the view. This is a perfect early winter’s day – crystal clear blue sky and a sun that’s warm enough to take the edge off the freezing breeze. Already, though, the sun is dipping behind the hills and there’s a feel of evening creeping in.

    I ask Anthony how we've done this morning. ‘We’ve got about half,' he says. I smile, taking it that he’s quite happy with the morning’s work. I did see some sheep higher up on the craggy hill tops when I was walking with Andrew, and he had said ‘ we'll get then next time ...’ When Anthony says 'we'll go back up there now and get them,’ I realise that next time is today. All the gathers I’ve done in the past have been done within 4 hours, maximum 5, but today we’re heading back out. I classify that as two gathers in one day and feel surprised, but, as with every visit I make to a farm, I learn something new. Today, it’s important to go back up – the sheep that didn’t come in this morning need to fetched before they spread out again. When farmers talk about gathering in the sheep, they mean getting all the sheep in from the higher ground to the low ground. This may mean two journeys up and round in one day; and up to six days may be needed to gather in the entire flock.

    Now we need to head up again onto the ridge leading to Dow Crag, and cover all the land behind it, including Blind Tarn and beyond. In the morning, with Anthony on the quad bike and Andrew on foot, we covered what must have been hundreds of hectares. And now we’re going to run over even more. I hadn’t realised just how large the area of land connected with Turner Hall is, or how much effort it takes to gather the sheep in. In figures, the common land falling under Anthony’s care is around 4800 hectares. What that looks like in reality is a massive sweep of high mountains covering an area whose edges you can’t see all at once, where ever you stand. There are high mountain tops, wide backs and spiny ridges, steep crags and scree slopes, gullies full of loose stone, tarns of cold black water, quarries, bogs and wooded areas. The height of this land varies from 300 metres, where the fell wall marks the inbye land from the common, to over 800 metres at the highest points. It’s enough land to keep a fell walker happy for at least a week; enough land to need 6 or more trips, each of 3-4 hours, for Anthony and Andrew to bring in the farm’s flock. With more people, it may be done more quickly, with only one, it’s just not possible.

    After our short rest we remount the quad bike and swerve and bump up the Walna Scar track to the tip of Buck Pike. Anthony and Andrew pull one dog each onto their laps – the ones that have tired already from the morning’s work. From buck Pike, Anthony sets off on foot up towards Dow Crag and then scurries down the severe scree-covered drop on the east face of the hill, with Rob in pursuit (laden with camera gear). I watch as they separate, Rob now with the task of driving a small packet of ewes towards Blind Tarn while Anthony runs back and forth with his three dogs to fetch stragglers from far away.

    Andrew sets off on the quad to cover the high ground (the ridges here are wide and easy to cover) and I walk on, spotting sheep for Andrew, occasionally blocking their path, and generally taking it in. My path, from Buck Pike down to Brown Pike and up again to White Maiden and White Pike follows a broad flat path, but I leave it frequently to stand on outcrops and look down the sides for sheep that Andrew may reach, and to the shepherds on the scree slopes below. Rob and Anthony make good headway even though the ground is tough underfoot – the names of the land like Blind Tarn and Dropping Crag betray its qualities and I know how tricky it can be to move fast in this terrain and am repeatedly impressed by the shepherds’ ability to move smoothly, quickly and confidently.

    Soon other figures appear beyond Rob and Anthony: the Inman brothers are gathering their flock from the same common and will drive them back down to their farm in the Coniston valley. There are whoops and whistles and coordination as the shepherds work to get the right sheep into the right place. By the time the Turner Hall flock is gathered loosely together we’re back within site of the Duddon Valley, and the sun has dipped into low clouds just above the flat waters of Morecambe bay which shimmers in the south.

    Andrew urges the sheep through a single gate into the inbye land. Here they’ll stay for a couple of days before being put to the tup. Anthony and Andrew will prepare the ewes by cutting away the excess fleece on their tails, and choose carefully which ewes he puts to which tup. We’ll be heading back on Monday to witness the tups being marked with strong colours so they mark the ewes they tip, and then being set among the flock to do their job. It’s the start of the shepherd’s year and the most important part: getting the tupping right, knowing the blood line is strong, and caring for the ewes and rams right now sets the flock and the farmer up for the year ahead.

    1 Comment

    • 1. Dec 2 2013 6:04PM by Jac Scott

      I can feel the sun on your back and the tiredness in your legs - a good days work by all.

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