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. 

One of the last Shepherd's huts still standing, I used this many times to catch a few hours slept at lambing time.

The lambing barn was perfectly arranged, All made of flint and brick, A large barn sat in the middle. On one side was a open yard and the other, a lean-to that ran down one side and the bottom that housed individual pens. This made for a great place to lamb and I consider myself lucky to have shepherded there..

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 ....

Looking South out to sea with Belle tout lighthouse on the cliffs at beachy head.

I have always had a passion for working dogs from an early age and to my father’s annoyance of not going into his building company,  I took up the life of shepherding and training dogs. I worked many farms within the Southdowns with many dogs and although I would not state to being the greatest commercial shepherd, I did however follow the way of the old downland shepherds in taking the best care of the flock and the land.  I did spend time following the old methods closely, when I managed to successfully introduce a flock of Scottish Blackfaced sheep onto an area that had been turned over to the public. This allowed the land to be grazed rather than mowed my tractor, thus giving the wide flowers a chance to return. I managed the flock amongst the public’s first displeasure of operating in their dog walking are, behind electric fence and folded the sheep at night into secure fields. So a modern take on the old shepherding ways.
I worked many dogs, teaming up with my uncle and renowned sheepdog breeder who lived in Wales. Training the dogs became a passion to understand and train with respect. Most of my dogs like Mist, Fay, Queen, Snow and Tweed taught me a lot about sheep, and the Downs.

Tweed, A wonderful Tri colour Border Collie, on Willingdon Hill with the Blackfaced Sheep.

I yearned to understand the ways of the old shepherds, their instinct for knowing by the weather where to find their flocks, their ability to read sheep and how they would react, their calmness, their knowledge of all the flora and fauna of the downs. These skills are lost but remain in other areas. Mr Blackmore did not have a Downland Ranger or conservation manager in his days, but we do and these roles hold the shepherd skills in the management and skills in protecting the the aforementioned flora and fauna. We have very successful farmers, that can run commercial flocks and so help keep the downs with sheep which is a good thing, the downs were made by sheep and need sheep to keep them.

But the skill, the real combined skill of the old shepherds is lost. No more do you see a flock of sheep folded at night, very rarely will you see sheep munching on turnips, wattle hurdles and sheep bells are long gone. In the picture of me, you will see I have a crook in my hand .... wrong, this is a “Pyecombe Hook” world famous and made out of an old shotgun barrel, they were made in Pyecombe nr Brighton and much sought after. It is a leg hook, and unlike the ones seen on one man and his dog, is used to secure the sheep by the leg, these are now very rare and you will not see one being used for what is was made for.

But to me the greatest skill lost is the working sheepdog. These in the old days were the bearded collie, a true downland working dog, and his posh cousin, the Border collie. It’s not that they are not about, it is that the modern day practices don’t allow it to be used to it strengths and that most farmers ( not all ) do not have the time nor skills to use them or fail to value them. I use to train many dogs and sell at auctions. I would be in disbelief when a farmer would ask to buy one of my dogs that could run up a hill over half a mile away, gather the sheep and bring them back to me with hardly a word spoken, and repeat it many times and never question me. The farmer would scorn the price of anything from £800 -£2000 for the dog, yet think nothing of driving around after his sheep in a £18,000 4x4 . When told that this dog could do this day after day for eight to ten years with nothing more than a bowl of food and a pat on the head, still they would argue the cost.  Tell me this I would ask “If you can find a lad that would do all that everyday for ten years in all weathers for the same price, let me know”

Now I went on to train dogs for many tasks, search and rescue, Air scenting, Tracking, Gun dogs, Agility dogs and all this stems back to and from the working sheepdog and his incredible power to manage large and small flocks of sheep. It was the love of sheepdogs that helped me understand downland sheep and gave me great passion for the downs. Now being out of the profession for 16 plus years, working in a very corporate world of security, in a highly paid role, you would think that those days wouldn't concern me, but they do! So going back to sitting on the Downs, watching a land rover charge around after the flock and the old faithful collie do his best to try to understand what is required of him, I wonder, I think and again my mind drifts to the old days and why are we losing these skills ? Is it to late to save them ... I think not ! Maybe it’s time for the Shepherd to return, maybe to some owner of some downland farm who wants to help preserve these skills?
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!

Rudyard Kipling

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed reading about the traditional life of the Downland shepherd.
    Jon Blackmore (yes, related to Stephen!)