Sheep of the Fells

Mary Taylor
 JOURNAL 
 2015 
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Mary’s extended family still work the farm in Chapel-le-Dale where her father settled in 1938. Her husband’s father took on the tenancy of Botton Head on the northern slopes of the Forest of Bowland in 1947. Following his death in 1962, her husband Bob took over and in 1963, he and his brother Gordon took on the adjoining farm Dixons, which they farmed in partnership for 14 years, until Gordon married and left to take on another farm. The eldest of their sons was now 15, and they continued farming together until 1998 when Bob retired to Bentham. Their eldest son took over the tenancy. Bob still goes to the farm most days; farmers never really retire.

Hefted Sheep

Sheep which live on the fell or moor each graze their own patch of land (they are hefted to this patch and go back to it every time they return to the fell): this is their home. It is the policy of many estates now to remove sheep from the grouse moors to reverse erosion and promote heather regeneration. Mr Pemberton, who used to shoot grouse on Botton Head Fell, in the forties and fifties, told me that he really liked to eat the grouse from there, as they tasted of bilberries, their main diet. So the sheep have lost their homes and are no longer hefted. There are fewer sheep on the farm now and they stay there until they are older. Dixons and Botton Head sheep went back to their own fell after each gathering and could be recognised as two different flocks.

Early Years

When my Father first rented the farm in Chapel-le-Dale he bought the flock of 200 Dalesbred breeding sheep hefted to Scales Moor with some rights on Ingleborough. These sheep live mostly on limestone pasture and still graze Scales Moor, although now some of the flock are Swaledale. On the Bowland fells, at the head of the Hindburn valley, the two farms, now worked as one, cover 1,600 acres and at one time kept up to 1,000 breeding sheep. The land there is boggy peat requiring all the clay inland having to be drained with land drains; there is no sweet limestone grass. Sheep here were Countrybred, a cross between Swaledale (a good mother who produced plenty of lambs and plenty of milk), Lonk (a big, hardy Lancashire sheep with silky wool) and Scotch Blackface (a hardy handsome sheep).

Fathers of the flock

The value of the lamb crop is determined in September and October when new breeding tups (rams) are bought. New blood is brought into the flock each year as tups are sold and bought at Bentham, Hawes, Lancaster and Clitheroe Auction Marts (an example of the price of tups in 1975 is that eight were bought at Lancaster for 400, the following year six were bought for 430). One ram once escaped from the old mart in Clitheroe; Bob finally caught up with it when an anxious-looking policeman held it with a piece of string in a shop doorway. Once home the tups are kept together in a building, so that they don’t fight, before being let out around 10 November, each into a different field with about 40 ewes to begin their vital work. Each Tup has crayon on its underside which rubs off on the ewes rump; the ewes’ cycle is 14 to 17 days so if they have not been served by then, they are given a second chance with a different male. The ones not in lamb are sold, although some non- productive ones are kept for another year. Some farmers tail the ewes prior to tupping (trimming wool from the top of the tail); this was not done at Botton head as the sheep needed all the protection they could get from the icy winter wind, as they spent the winter on the fell. The sheep were put back to the fell after about three weeks with some tups to make sure every possible sheep was in lamb. The tups were left out for about a month. Horned rams are still used but now Blue Faced Leicester tups are put to Swaledale ewes to produce Mule gimmers (female lambs). These are popular with lowland farmers as they produce fat lambs (lambs for meat). Some of these Mule gimmers lamb as hoggs, so saving the farmer a year of keep for these young sheep. Other tups used for fat lambs are Suffolks and Continental breeds.

Communal Gathering

In the early days, before telephones, a white cloth was hung from the bedroom window to let the farmer across the valley know when the gather was on. Several farmers with their dogs helped to gather each other’s flocks from their different fells on different days.

Stragging

Sheep didn’t like to be brought down off the fell, and some hid (some could be seen by their back end as they thought if they couldn’t see you, you couldn’t see them). The ones which succeeded, called strags, had to be brought down the next day - odd ones managed to evade all attempts to gather them. In the early days there were no fences to prevent sheep straying between the fells of Botton Head to Croasdale near Slaidburn or Whitendale near Dunsop Bridge. Arrangements were made by postcard to meet at the top of the fell and exchange each other’s sheep, or they were taken round by trailer. Sheep had to be looked at most days in the winter and brought down if the snow was too deep for them to dig down to the grass. Hay was taken to them with the grey Fergy (Ferguson) tractor. Sheep dogs are still essential for the gather but it is now much easier with a quad bike.

Lambing

The gestation for a sheep is five months, so at the beginning of April the flock was gathered into the inland fields ready for lambing. At that time there was no way of telling whether a sheep was due to have one or two lambs. Now sheep are scanned to see how many lambs they are carrying, so that the ones carrying twins can be put onto better land. The thick of the lambing was over in about three very hard hectic weeks when the men had no time or energy to shave, so that at the end they looked like the old men from the hills. At that time all the sheep were lambed outside. Early in the morning, as soon as there was enough light, Bob set off with his dog to look at all the sheep; if any were in difficulty he and the dog caught it and helped it. He noted any with twins or dead lambs and went for these later. It took ages to walk a sheep with twins into the better fields. One with a dead lamb would follow the lamb which was tied to string and dragged along the ground. If the ewe didn’t have enough milk the lamb had to be fed with a bottle - cow’s milk from the farm was used; specially made powdered milk is now used. Lambs were often warmed up in the oven with the oven door open; thick newspaper was laid along the bottom and up the hot side and the lamb wrapped in a towel put in until it recovered. It was then put in a cardboard box next to the fire until it was fit to rejoin its mother. Now there is a warming box in the barn.

Mothering

A dead lamb was skinned and the skin put onto one of a set of twins to make it smell like the dead one. This was usually successful, each sheep happily going off with a lamb. Some sheep still lamb outside, with the farmer up at first light, but some are lambed inside a sheep shed and can be looked at in the night. There are pens in the shed where sheep with their lambs are kept until the lamb is strong enough to go out into the fields. This shed is also used for fattening lambs to be sold for meat.

Marking

At about a fortnight old each lamb was given an ear mark (a small bit of the ear cut off) - each farm had a different mark. They were also given a wool mark to be identified from other flocks. At that time the gimmers (female lambs) had about half their tails cut off with a very sharp knife. The male lambs were made into wethers, by being castrated with a red hot castrating iron which also cauterised the wound - this didn’t seem to bother the lambs. The testicles were fried and eaten as lamb fries.

Back Home

The ewes with their new lambs were then taken back to the fell where the lamb became hefted to its own patch of fell.

Communal Sheep washing

In Chapel-le-Dale, father and the neighbours washed sheep until the 1950s, before shearing, in a specially-built communal sheep-wash in a very cold stream on the next farm. This had been discontinued at Botton Head by 1947.

Communal Shearing

There were then still communal shearing days. The sheep had to be gathered, the barn cleaned and about eight shearing stocks set up. The shearer sat on the narrow end of the wooden stock with one leg on the stock to steady the sheep laid on the stock in front of him. The best shearers (they each had their sharpening stone for their shears) took up their places and one of the catchers brought a sheep to each one. The sheep were sheared by hand with hand shears, the shorn sheep was then taken by the marker to be marked and sent out to the lambs waiting in a nearby field. The wool was taken by the wrapper who rolled it up inside out, twisted part of it and tied it round to stop it unravelling. Fleeces were thrown onto the wool loft to be packed at a later date. All these men needed feeding; cakes had been baked the day before and were taken out for the mid-morning drinking, along with mugs of tea. A mid-day dinner was cooked and served inside at a long table; they were refreshed again in the afternoon. I only had a few shearing days as there were problems: each farm had a fixed day and if that day was wet the sheep couldn’t be sheared and another day had to be fitted in. After they were sheared the sheep were marked with the wool mark, mothered up with their own lambs and taken back to the fell. On wet days the fleeces were packed into large sacks, called wool sheets; corners were packed to keep the filled sheet flat for loading onto the wagon, to be taken to Bradford. Wool used to be a valuable income and at one time wethers were kept for their wool, but this century, money received for the clip is hardly enough to pay the contract shearers.

Dipping

The flock was gathered again at the beginning of August for the summer dipping to prevent fly strike (to keep flies from laying their eggs on the sheep). The dipper was like a long deep bath dug into the ground. This was filled with a mixture of water and dip (we used yellow arsenic dip which came as a paste in a big bucket; we mixed it with bare hands and arms with no ill effects). Each sheep was lowered into the dipper backwards; it then turned round to swim out, and its head was pushed under water with a special wooden implement or a long brush, before it climbed up the steps at the far end. Sheep did not like being dipped. Pour-on dip is now available.

Spaining

This term means weaning, that is, taking the lambs from the sheep. The sheep were then taken back to the fell and the lambs kept in fields near to home. After about a fortnight the gimmer lambs were taken to the fell; these were the youngest generation of the breeding flock and would go back to their hefted area to join their mothers, but they were now weaned.

Summering

About this time two or three farmers from the lower land who had bought sheep from the farm would bring 30 to 50 each back to be summered on the fell. These ewes went back about the beginning of October.

Store Lamb Sales

Wether lambs (castrated males) and gimmers (female lambs) not needed for flock replacements were sold at Store Lamb sales in Bentham. They were bought by farmers who fattened them to sell in the meat market.

Draft Ewe Sales

At the end of September the fells were gathered again and sheep and lambs sorted through the sorter. They were housed in a yard and sent up a narrow passage which divided at the end with one door hinged in the middle; this was opened one way or the other to sort the sheep. The hefted flock were kept on the fell until they were five years old, then the older ones which had had three or four lambing seasons were sold as drafts to farmers on lower land. They were usually sold in pens of 20. These were good sheep and lived for another three or four years, producing lambs each year for their new owners. (Bob’s father Charlie pointed out a sheep to me in 1958 with horns like a goat; he had taken it to a draft ewe sale but the buyer didn’t want it so he brought it home again where it produced lambs year after year. In 2013 a mule lamb which shouldn’t have had horns at all, sported a magnificent pair of goat horns, obviously one of her descendants). The draft ewes were walked to the sale at Bentham. On the 4th October 1977 the nearest way to Bentham was across Whitray Beck in a pasture near the Hindburn. There was more water than expected and it was a great struggle - but only one draft ewe was drowned. Gone are the draft ewe sales; there is now a good market for cast sheep (older sheep) bought by the Muslim people for curries. They also buy lambs at the thriving Wednesday evening sale at Bentham Auction Mart.

Winter dipping

This was about mid-October and was a hot dip; it still had chemicals but now whale oil was added which was heated up outside in a large metal barrel. Once the oil burst into flames and had to be dowsed with a wet sack.

Hogg Wintering

The gimmer hoggs (the breeding stock) went to farms on lower ground for winter to give them a good start in life. They went by wagon around the first of November and came home at the beginning of April and were taken straight to the fell as the ewes were gathered for lambing.

Some Pests and diseases

Stray dogs were, and still are a menace, chasing and worrying sheep and lambs. Sheep are dosed for liver-fluke, the host to which is a snail. There are also worms and tape worms (in 2001 when the land was closed off in the foot and mouth outbreak, and no dogs allowed on the land, the sheep were clear of tape worm, the dog being the carrier). Foxes were not a problem since they would take anything dead, but a sheep would defend her lamb and the only chance a fox had was a weak twin. Crows peck the eyes out of any live sheep stuck in one of the bogs. Hooves have to be trimmed and treated for foot rot. Ticks which pass on Lyme disease are found on sheep and sheep dogs. Dipping is used to prevent fly strike and also Sheep Scab, which, rather like mange, is caused by a scab mite. There was also another disease which caused itching and wool loss called Scrapie thought to be in part inherited and brought on by stress. Sheep have to be given an injection for a condition called Staggers; they usually make a full recovery. Whole flocks had to be destroyed in the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001. New diseases such as Blue Tongue are now coming over from the continent. Farmers try their hardest to keep their animals happy and in good health. The vet is very rarely called as the vet bill is more than the animal is worth.

Income from sheep

The main income from sheep used to be from the sale of draft ewes, store lambs and wool. Now the main income is from fat lambs, store lambs, mule gimmers and cast sheep.

Terms used

Ewe - female sheep. Ram/Tup - uncastrated male sheep. Wether - castrated male sheep. Gimmer - young female sheep or lamb. Hogg/Hogget - young sheep, male or female, not yet shorn. Shearling - sheep having been shorn once. Fleece - wool from a single sheep. Fatten - to feed for slaughter. Mule - a sheep breed, a cross between a lowland ram (usually a Bluefaced Leicester) and a purebred upland (or hill) ewe (mostly Swaledale in this area). Gather - to bring the sheep home together from scattered places on the fell. Strags - sheep which evade the gather and have to be brought in later. Shearing - the act of cutting the fleece from the sheep with shears.

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