Sunday, 23 June 2013
Where have all the Southdowns Shepherds gone ???
So.... Where are all the Southdowns Shepherds gone ? This is a question I asked myself after a wonderful day wondering the Southdowns. I was sat watching a flock of sheep, grazing the flower rich fields of a beautiful downland valley and the poem by Arthur Beckett in his 1909 book “The spirit of the Downs” came to mind and In it the verse of
“The distant down is dappled by a thousand grey-white sheep,
The tuneful tinkle of their bells steals from the far of steep;
And as you watch the shepherd calls “Goo, fetch um home, good Tray”
The faithful collie folds the flock at the purple close o’ day”
Well that wasn’t the picture I got as a loud “Beeping of a car horn” shattered the peace and brought me rushing back into the 21st century !! I watched in amazement as a Land rover screamed into the field, speeding backwards and forwards almost driving into the sheep to force them to move! The sound was deafening as coupled with the revving engine and the blaring constant horn beeping, the farmer screamed and shouted obscenities at a poor old collie, who in far play, was trying to do his best. I listened in disbelief and watch with a saddened heart “Look back, look back ...... Nooooooooo Get up !! For **** sake you ******* stupid dog, go back !!!” Not quite the same poetical verse of Arthur Beckett ? I will point out that NO sheep nor Dog was hurt in this scene, however, I can not state the same for the owner of both said sheep and dog, for HIGH blood pressure is a killer !!
This is by no means and isolated case these days, for only the very next day I was a few miles away from my encounter with Land Rover Shepherd walking another part of the Southdowns. Whilst walking through a field of sheep, I noticed a lamb that was struck with fly-strike. This to those not accustomed to such delights, is when flies lay their eggs into soiled and damp wool. The eggs hatch very quickly into maggots and they gorge themselves on the flesh of the sheep. It was on the footpath and showing signs of distress clearly to anyone passing. As we neared the edge of the field, a 4x4 and trailer came thundering into view. I was about to stop the farmer, however he sped pass heading of to “looker” his flock. The term “Lookering” is when a shepherd or farmer checks his sheep for any problems and is an old term. Now to utter disbelief, the said 4x4 was travelling at such a speed, churning up the downland orchids and grass land that it passed right by the lamb with strike ! I wasn't surprised, how the driver could spot anything at such a speed was beyond me? And so with saddened heart again, the 4x4 dragging it’s trailer headed off up the steep slope of the Southdowns National Park and out of view.
This I am getting afraid of, appears to becoming the very modern way of shepherding the Southdowns. Faithful old collies and Shepherding skills are being replaced with 4x4’s and Quad bikes, time and financial pressures force the farmer to employee these tactics and the ways of the downland shepherds are long gone. Now I will point out at this stage that it is not that the owners or farmers do not care, it is a fact that however, there are very very few employed Shepherds working the downs, solely in charge of the sheep, if any ? And therefore these sheep are fitted into the rest of the very demanding work carried out by our farmers. There skills are are still remarkable, juggling many tasks in uncertain times against year on price drops from huge demanding supermarket chains, but nevertheless, the skills from the Downland shepherds and the way they managed their flocks is gone.
I will read you another extract from Arthur’s book:
“ It is nearly five o’clock and the breeze is still warm “ I mentioned to the shepherd as he approached me.
“Aye, but you would not call it pleasant, sir, if you was up here sometimes in the winter. Fourteen year have I been on these hills, and eighty-and-farty year have I minded ship (sheep)”
“it is a long time, but judging from your ruddy face I should say that the life is a healthy one” I remarked
“Aye sir; I never once remember having a day of sickness ‘cept when I lost my hand”
For the first time I noticed that the old man had only one arm and he went to to tell me his had it torn clean off by a chaff cutter when he was a boy.
Now the shepherd in question was Stephen Blackmore of Beachy Head who died in 1920. Their is a great picture of him with his working bearded collie in the book, the old fashion Downland sheepdog, long before the modern trial sheepdog and better known border collie. As a matter of fact, I was privileged enough not only to know Mr Blackmore’s great great grandson, but as a shepherd of the downs for 16 years, I worked and slept at Mr Blackmore’s old Victorian Lambing barns above east Dean. It has still got one of the last remaining Shepherd cottages next to the lambing barn. A small flint house, one room with a split loft sleep area and a fireplace. These were used by the shepherds so they could be with their flock night and day.
The cottage had a lean-to also, and in here pens could be made up for any sheep needing extra attention so that they were close at hand.
It is truly a wonderful place to visit, the views are stunning out over Belle tout lighthouse and the English channel. I was told a story from one of the old farm hands from East Dean: Back In Mr Blackmore’s days shepherding there, they use to hear stories of “growing lambs in the ground” What it turned out to be was those lambs that were cold and suffering from the effects of the wind that drives in from the sea, where buried up to their heads in the huge dung pile to keep warm from the heat it produced. So any walkers coming upon them would only see little lambs heads poking up bleating insanely !! Now that is clever shepherding ....
Below Is a verse from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, who loved the Downs, It can be found on a gravestone in Folkington Church yard and to me means everything about the Downs and Shepherds to me.
I've given my soul to the Southdown grass,
And sheep-bells tinkled where you pass.
Oh Firle an' Ditchling an' sails at sea,
I reckon you keep my soul for me!