• #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.


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