We have only formally wintered Herdwicks once, as an experiment. Fences good enough for cattle and even for mule ewes, might as well have not been there. The chap whose Herdwicks they were fetched them in two groups and they remained in two groups. Even when wandering they stuck to their groups. Indeed at one point both lots were out, and wandered down a track towards each other, passed through each other and kept going in their chosen direction.
At the time I did wonder whether the two groups didn’t ever stop to think, “If they’re abandoning this direction, is it worth us going there?” But obviously sheep don’t work like that.
At the time we had some electrified wire netting we used to keep cows and calves out of certain areas. Imagine a sheep netting fence of string but with thin metal wires fed through it carrying the current. It was very effective with calves and their mothers. It’s only 12 volt but they touched it once and didn’t touch it again.
Still we had one Herdwick hogg who obviously took exception to the damned stuff. When we found her she’d managed to wrap the entire fifty yard roll around herself. It wasn’t that she’d got caught in it and was trailing it behind her. No she was completely bundled up in it.
But as I said, we only did it once. There are two problems, one obvious (damned things never stay where you put them) and one less obvious. The owner doesn’t want them back until he’s got grass. That, for him, will be sometime in May. We want them away in March because otherwise they’re eating the grass we need for first cut silage for our dairy cows. The attempts to synchronise these two desires leads to a belief in both parties that the other party is obviously using a different calendar.
But in spite of only wintering Herdwicks that once, we still get Herdwicks in small numbers every year. They’re like nits at a primary school, somebody gets them, and then everybody gets them.
A lot of years ago, one farmer, now deceased, wintered some. If they spent any time on his land it was because they crossed it to get out on the other side. Their wanderings were limited. On two sides there was the sea. On the third side was ‘the beck’ which was cut like an anti-tank ditch back in the 60s, and that seems to have stopped them. On the fourth side was the old coal-fired power station. It had areas where hot ashes cooled and to an extent, from a sheep’s point of view, looked somewhat like Mordor. But as well as the ash pits (and for all I know, wandering Orcs and giant spiders) there was a wire dump. During the war, because we’re a shipbuilding town with a good docks, we were considered a potential invasion target. What made it more possible was the fact that we had both vast areas of flat sand (Morecambe Bay) where you could land gliders, and the best deep water harbour between Milford Haven and the Clyde. I think that the fear was that the invasion would be a combination of glider troops and paras direct from the Continent, and then troops landed from ‘neutral’ merchant shipping lurking in the ports of the Irish Republic.
I can remember as a child, the sands were still covered with anti-glider posts hammered into the sands. There are still the pill boxes and gun emplacements, but there had been an awful lot of barbed wire. Whilst the pill boxes etc are still there and the glider posts disappeared as the sea worked on them, the barbed wire had to be removed. Next to the power station was what was said to be the main ‘barbed wire dump.’
Now the chap who was wintering the Herdwicks never got involved in details, but I know one farmer who reckoned back in the day he spent quite a lot of time cutting Herdwicks out of the barbed wire.
The same farmer went to a sale somewhere in the north of the county and he got chatting to the chap standing next to him at the sale ring. When the farmer he was talking to discovered where my informant was from, this new acquaintance commented, “I once had some sheep winter down there. I’ve never had a batch do as well.”
There again, they’d had plenty of ground to run over.
But this year no Herdwicks, none of our neighbours seem to have got any. But we have had walkers wandering.
Now this has been intriguing. During the first lockdown, the weather was gorgeous and we got a lot of people walking through the lanes. To be honest I don’t have a problem with that. I suppose having had covid anyway means I’m less fussed, but given where some of them live, no wonder they need to get out. This lockdown the weather has been worse and we’ve seen few people on the lanes. But I’ve seen more walkers trying to follow footpaths. I’d be hedging and minding my own business and somebody would shout across asking where they were and how they got back to the road.
As a far better writer than I wrote,
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;”
To be fair, round here, I’d say a fair proportion have been. Still I was talking to somebody and she commented that she’d noticed a lot of people taking their exercise walking round the town centre. She reckoned there was two factors at work, the first is the weather. If it does chuck it down, you’ve got shelter. But perhaps more worrying, a lot of this started when police in the Peak District started fining people £200 for driving five miles to walk, and claimed taking a coffee with you meant you were having a picnic. (The police backed down over that) Talking to people she knew, some of them commented that in town you weren’t going to get fined for going too far from home.
Now whilst I know Cumbria Constabulary has quite rightly got a bit shirty with people driving considerable distances to get into the Lake District and then wild camping, I’ve heard nothing negative about them locally. In fact what comments I’ve heard about our local force have been entirely positive.
I know of one chap who does have mental health issues. He suffers from panic attacks. During the first lockdown he was in his car and was stopped by the police. He explained that when he had a panic attack he drove to the beach, parked his car and just sat in it and looked at the sea. Whether it was going out or coming in didn’t matter, just looking at the sea, often for two or three hours, just lifted him out of it.
When he’d explained this the policeman just stepped back and told him to go to where he normally parked, take as long as he wanted, and if any busybody queried it, tell them he had police approval.
You need to be a real professional to cope with sheep
More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.
As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”