There are, some say, more sheep than people living in Cumbria; and indeed no Lakeland view is complete without grazing sheep somewhere in the picture. For hundreds of years, sheep were the cornerstone of Lakeland prosperity; no other animals could have been more crucial to the economic survival of an area than sheep have been to the Lake District. This week our series on animals looks at the life of the shepherd and his flock in the early 1900s.
It wasn't uncommon for a shepherd to have to climb a couple of rough, steep miles and a thousand feet to work to reach his flock. Some farms had a upwards of a thousand sheep of various breeds to care for in all weathers. Everything was done in strict rotation, from lambing, through clipping to dipping,followed by the sheep sales, then the rams to be put to the ewes before the whole cycle started again. Winter snow meant sheep had to be dug out, brought down and fed, and there were sheep dogs to train; salve and marking to be made, or wool to be washed:
"We started lambing up here about April 17, then in the second week of June it was hog clipping. Then after you'd got them clipped and sided up just after June they all went back in the field and then in August there was dipping. Then first week in September, you'd to bring them in and take the lambs off them... each month had its job."
Despite the long hours, a good lambing gave a shepherd something to see for his efforts:
"I was as happy as a king being a shepherd. Its a great life, you are amongst nature every day. I didn't find it very hard to work in all weathers because you take the bitter with the sweet. Today shepherding has nearly gone, because they won't have the hours. Lambing time, you used to be up by five and it would be maybe midnight before you got to bed, through suckling and bottling and making them all secure for the night. Well, they won't have that today; its all done away with. They always used to have somebody just bottling up. But it was a great life, you saw things grow up, and if you had a bad lambing, you had nothing to look at all summer but if you had a good lambing you were right, you had a good stock."
After lambing was over, before clipping could begin, a shepherd had at least two week's preparation to complete:
"There used to be washing days a fortnight before the sheep was clipped. You'll find in a lot of these dale places there's a 'wash up' where they'd make a dam and a man would get in the water and wash the sheep."
Wool sometimes fetched as little as 20p a pound, and if the wool wasn't clean it could bring the price down even lower. So there were dirty sheep to wash and the lambs to castrate as well before clipping began.
The biggest change in shepherding for centuries came with the arrival of electric clippers replacing hand shears. Sadly the clipping gangs and the jovial dances and festivities that accompanied them soon went as well. This is a clipping remembered from the 1920s:
"I've clipped a hundred sheep in a day, but its been a long day, you get tired. I started to clip when I was 14 and when you get to about 80 sheep, you're ready for giving over. Its very hard on the wrist. Its like an endless dirty job because all the grease and that out of the sheep comes on to you. It isn't what you'd call a nice job, its a real greasy job. Long ago you'd think nothing about going over to Kentmere in the morning, clipping, not get back till next day, mebbe lying drunk in t'barn that neet!
"There was somebody doing nothing all day but carrying a jug of beer round, you know. They'd get a cask of beer in them days when I was a little boy in Mardale. I had a white suit I wore to go to clippings, and I used to love to walk round with the tar pot and dab all the spots that they cut so as flies wouldn't bother 'em. There's one place in Mardale you hadn't to cut a sheep; you hadn't to nick a sheep anywhere if you could help it - festers, you see. You'd mebbe get an odd 'un, but get some salve,green salve, and put it on."
The breeding of a good flock was a science all of its own, using Herdwicks, Swaledales, Cheviots, Scotch black faced ewes or occasionally Blue faced Leicesters. Some sheep stood the Lakeland weather better than others:
"With a Leicester you've a lamb that must sell when sun's shining. If you don't get 'em selled by August or early September they'd start going back, they're like a blinking cauli, you've to sell 'em when the sun shines!"
To acquire different breeds, tups were hired out:
"There was special spots to gaang and git them, such as Keswick and Wasdale Tup Fairs and you bought them, like at Ambleside Fair, you could go and hire them, to get different breeds... you went to one farmer mebbe two years, then you changed to another."
The marking of sheep was vital to prevent stealing and straying. Some sheep were key marked, others were marked with a distinctive ear clip which couldn't be tampered with, or were ear slitted. Daubing the fleece with dye caused problems because a good, strong dye or 'smit'would last so well that it marked the fleece after clipping, and the farmer would get a lower price. On the other hand, a weaker dye that didn't stain would also wash out within months in Lakeland weather. Any small tarn called 'Red Tarn' might well have been the source of a red marking mixture, concocted by the shepherd himself.
"We used red, ochre. It didn't wash out of the fleece so it had to be done away with in time, it was that bad. You lost pounds on that mark because they could hardly get it out of t'fleece, so we had to start marking with red stuff like a thin paint and that disappeared on the fell. You could put this blinking stuff on and if that sheep still had that coat after two years, it would still be there, it set like iron ore, stiff. But this other, by the time they'd been on the fell six months, they had come back and it had nearly disappeared. You had to re-mark them."
Has the advent of electric clippers and Land Rovers, trailers and trucks coupled with a more scientific and cost-conscious approach to sheep farming also produced a better shepherd? One old man thought not:
"They're riding about in cars these days, but you don't see much that way. I've noticed at lambing time they're riding about in a car - well, you just can't see."
And are sheep really as daft as we think they are? Not according to another shepherd who once saw a blind ewe being guided along by its lamb:
"If she went alongside a stone, that lamb would be there and push her off, and if she was to jump a gutter, he would give her a knock before she jumped. I thought that was marvellous.
"...Its a great life, I'll tell you, just roaming the fells. If you fall out with the wife, you can shut the door and say 'Good day, I'll be back tonight' - she can do all t'work herself!"