For a small island, Great Britain certainly has more than its fair share of sheep. According to the National Sheep Association (NSA), there are thought to be more sheep breeds in the United Kingdom than in any other country in the world. Breeds like the Welsh Mountain sheep, the Border Leicester and the Cheviot are success stories. Other breeds including the Teeswater and the North Ronaldsay are rare, and rarer still is the Boreray sheep, sadly on the critically endangered list and hailing from the small island of Boreray off the northwest coast of Scotland.
The same can be said for several breeds in North America, including the Saint Croix, Karakul, and Jacob on the Livestock Conservancy’s “Threatened” list, and breeds like the Florida Cracker and Hog Island on their “Critical” list. A desire for larger, more productive meat sheep has led to the decline of many smaller breeds. However, one type of farming in Britain continues to sustain these small breeds, and that is “hill farming.”
The hills are alive
Hill farming is an agricultural practice that takes place mainly in Wales, Scotland and some parts of northern England. Sheep are the main livestock farmed in these regions, simply because in mountainous places there is little else in the way of livestock that will thrive. In Wales, we have several sheep breeds that are well suited for the land—mostly small, hardy animals, bred to cope with life in the mountains. Steep hillsides, harsh weather and rough grazing land have meant that sheep farming has long been the primary source of income for most farmers in the area. A hill farmer may own several thousand acres of land but have little need for state-of-the-art machinery since much of the land is often too rough or too hilly to cultivate.
In this respect, hill farming has changed little over the generations, and many of the old traditions remain. Farmers still gather together to bring the sheep down from the mountains for routine care such as ear marking, shearing or separating those to be sold. With several hundred head of sheep—and between five and 10 men, each with two or three working dogs—gathering days are hard work for both men and dogs. But it is also a time of laughter and camaraderie. At one time there would have been many more sheep spending all year up on the mountainsides. But in recent years, farmers are being encouraged to either reduce the number of sheep on the mountains or to take them off the mountain at certain times of the year in order to reduce environmental impact.
We tend to imagine that our beautiful mountains are pristine, natural environments, untouched by the human hand when in fact sheep have largely shaped our mountains—at least in terms of the flora and fauna. Without sheep, the mountains would have far more shrubs and small trees. It is for this reason that recent environmental schemes have restricted sheep numbers on the mountains and instead encouraged smaller flock sizes more evenly spread out.
The effort to achieve a more balanced “agricultural ecosystem” has in some instances led to an increase in the number of Welsh Black cattle on the mountains. Far from being a newfangled idea, it seems that this may be a resurrection of a traditional “mixed” farming approach. For the small-scale homesteader, this could provide the opportunity to implement a few head of heritage cattle as part of a rotation system to keep pastures healthy. The hardy Welsh cattle are able to eat the tough mountain grasses, but they avoid the shrubs, thus balancing out the way the upland sheep tend to graze.
But of course, cattle can’t negotiate the steep, rocky hillsides quite the same as the wily and nimble mountain sheep. There will always be places where no livestock other than sheep can thrive. It is in fact our inhospitable places, the mountainous regions, the heather-clad moorlands, and the remote windswept islands, which have preserved our small, traditional sheep breeds. In flatter, more fertile areas, larger sheep breeds have taken over, but it is those rather “unproductive,” far-flung places that have provided a safe haven for our truly ancient sheep breeds.
Small farms located among similar terrain and hard-to-cultivate areas can provide similar refuge for rare breeds to recover their numbers while allowing homesteaders the opportunity to find a niche market.
Man’s best friend
The agricultural industry has changed almost beyond recognition in the last century. However, hill farms are not so different than what they were 100 years ago. Sturdy boots are still the main form of transportation, and a couple of good sheepdogs are the most important tools a sheep farmer can have at his disposal. Anyone who has ever tried to herd untamed sheep into a pen on a hillside without a trained sheepdog will know that it is nigh on impossible. The farmer on the landscape with his flat cap, walking stick and his sheepdog—it’s an iconic image of rural Britain.
When bringing sheep down from the hillsides, a good dog with plenty of stamina and common sense is essential. A dog that waits for its handler’s command every minute won’t get far on a hillside. Often the handler is out of sight of the dog, and it must know what is needed of it. Herding dogs must have a strong instinct to keep the sheep moving forward in the right direction, down toward the farm or the pen.
Andrew Roberts of Llanrwst, North Wales, who trains sheepdogs for personal flock management and to sell to farmers, says, “You can’t make a dog work...and you can’t explain to it that you want it to go around the sheep for you; you have to rely on its instinct to want to do that.” Basically, the dog has to want to work. Dogs that have an eye for sheep can usually be trained to respond to commands from the handler. This requires an enormous amount of patience from a handler as, of course, there is little in life that’s more frustrating than a dog that won’t listen.
Hill farmers have never been wealthy. Their land cannot be heavily stocked, they don’t always have access to the sort of land that can produce large amounts of good-quality winter fodder, and their lambs are ready for market later than those in lowland areas. And like any other farmer, the hill farmer is constantly facing changes—new rules, more paperwork, the pressure to meet the changing demands of buyers, distributors and shoppers, and, more recently, a growing tourism industry that is bringing visitors to the countryside.
Today, hill farmers in Britain are worried about the impact of tourists in rural areas—gates left open, litter, small lanes blocked with traffic, and sheep being attacked by visitors’ dogs. Although, many farmers have made the effort to branch into tourism and now embrace the visitors and holiday-makers as part of their income.
Full-scale hill farming is generally not a role that one chooses. Rather, it is a role that one inherits. For many of these traditional farmers, it’s more than a business or a career; it’s a way of life. One farmer who feels that the hills are in his blood is Gareth Wyn Jones of Llanfairfechan, North Wales. Gareth’s family has farmed the Carneddau Mountains in Snowdonia, Wales, for 350 years “and it means everything to me,” says the 47-year-old father of three. Being out and about in the hills with his dogs is second nature to Gareth, and it’s the type of lifestyle the willing and hill-bound homesteader would likely enjoy, no matter the geographic location.
What breed is right for you? Learn all about different breeds with this handy guide to sheep breeds.
Sheep gathering times
• Early Spring For those few farmers who still leave their sheep on the mountains all winter, spring is the time they gather the sheep down to the farm. Pregnant ewes will remain down on the farm for lambing, and any yearlings that have overwintered at the farm, or away in a low land area, will be returned to the mountain.
• Late Spring After lambing, the ewes and new lambs will be sent up the mountain. First they will be ear marked and treated for lice and ticks.
• Summer The first big sheep gathering takes place around July when the sheep are brought down for shearing.
• Late Summer Gathering at this time allows the farmers to wean any lambs that are ready. Sheep are generally treated for worms at this time, too.
• Autumn Gathering in autumn allows the farmer to sort which lambs he is going to keep and those he is going to sell. Any smaller lambs that have been left with their mothers are weaned at this time. Older, unproductive ewes are separated for sale, and the breeding ewes will go back up the mountain—or as is more often the case these days, they’ll be contained in a slightly smaller area, as this will save the rams from having to chase the ewes quite so far.
Josephine Roberts is a freelance heritage writer based in the foothills of Snowdonia, North Wales. She lives on an old-fashioned smallholding (small farm) with chickens, ducks, sheep and vintage tractors.