Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Brr....... It's cold!

There's no pleasing some folks and I'm one of them at the mo'. Now cold during the day is bearable, wrap up well, keep yourself busy and all is well. Cold at night isn't fun.

Shep and Co live in a cottage made of wood, with very thin walls and at the moment it seems the cold coming in is beating the heat we are trying to generate. My ears in the morning when I awake are able to forecast the weather outside, so cold that I imagine they might snap off means a hard frost, just cold enough to be uncomfortable probably means there is a slight frost. This morning I realised it must have come fresh - well it was snowing on peering out; the same thing really as the air temperature has to rise a bit for the snow to fall and so it had. How had I concluded this? Well my ears were just cold, not COLD........

We were very lucky just before Christmas as we were very kindly given a load of Ash from a local farmer. Not the ash that comes with cinders, no the sort that grows into a tree. Now this wood is still green but as the saying goes 'Ash when green is fit for a Queen'. It is burning quite well although we do dry it for a day in the oven next to the fire before burning it.

Bad organisation is what it all boils down to - no dry firewood. There has been a lot of firewood gathered, cut and chopped lately but by rights that ought to be for next winter when it gets dried out, it doesn't generate as much heat when you hear it sizzling on the fire.

Not to worry, we are coping, the coal man very kindly delivered the week before Christmas which means we can ladle it on alongside the sizzling wood. Should life get too bad oil filled electric radiators may well get used, however a horrendous electricity bill a few years back has meant their use tends to be limited.

We are fortunate as there are two open fires in this house. A small grate in the bedroom which gets lit every evening to try and remove the chill as it ain't a lot of fun to get into bed and find your breath turning to water on the covers. Mind you the first cottage I ever had I well remember one hard winter having ice on the covers when I awoke - life is definitely better since those days.

The airing cupboard door is left open to allow the heat from the hot tank to escape into the rest of the house - our one and only radiator! By the way we don't have an immersion heater so this heat is the left over from the back boiler and as the fire is on 24/7 at the mo' there is plenty of hot water, unlike the summer when we have to light the fire to have a bath, in the winter we run the bath to get rid of the hot water - mental note:must look into running radiators off it

Life could be worse, the dogs have to sleep outside in a kennel with no heating, the cat gets kicked out every night after having cooked herself at the fireside for hours and I have to say that by this time of night the house is warming up nicely it just seems to lose that heat so rapidly overnight and the following day is spent trying to raise the indoor temperature again. It's all short lived as spring and summer are on the way once again and Shep will be able to complain about the heat!!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

White Christmas

Aye, one minute we're complaining about the wet the next we're complaining about the cold - not the farmers tho', no, this is good stock weather at the moment, at least it is in Tarset I'm not speaking for the rest of the country. We have snow, varying amounts depending on the height of the ground but none of it has blown and the rough ground is still breaking through so it ain't really too bad at all.

Okay, there's a few problems with frozen water and the likes but nothing too serious. Hay is being offered to some sheep who are only too pleased to receive it but fortunately many are able to scratch through the snow and still graze away, it is really only those on barer ground which are likely to suffer. There are no clarts (mud), which is a welcome change.

We haven't seen vast amounts of sunshine but the days definitely appear to be lengthening, although that may well be due to the whiteness all around giving us the impression of longer days. We're past the winter solstice so it is all down hill now, will be spring before we know it !!

Christmas Day will dawn white, at the moment we are shrouded in freezing fog so that ain't gonna encourage the white stuff to melt. It has been a difficult time for those wishing to do Christmas shopping, fulfil social engagements, or expecting family and friends coming to stay over Christmas, however it all pans out one way and the other. There have been some disappointments, visitors unable to travel etc., which just shows the power of Mother Nature.

You can not change the weather, just prepare for it and show it some respect. Farmers and shepherds are used to just that, although the weather of latter years may have caused a sense of complacency the natural grounding is always prevalent. Plenty of fodder in for the stock, fuel in for tractors/bikes and the house, pantries full - ready for winter and what ever it brings our way.

Shep and Co will be taking to the roads on Christmas day, shovel in boot just in case. We head out of the North Tyne and down into the South Tyne to spend a day with family, a treat we so look forward too. Should the worst come to the worst though we are prepared to bide at home and feast on beans on toast. Whatever your circumstances this Christmas I hope you're able to make the best of it, remember, there'll always be someone less fortunate than yourself.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

under age sex

A problem facing all walks of life; hormones racing, juveniles becoming sexually active... Sheep are no different to any other animals on this planet.

Mother Nature decides when a sheep is matured enough to reproduce not the sheep themselves.

Immature sheep are known as hoggs, this has already been discussed in past blogs. This years hoggs were born in April/May so by tup time they are only approx 6 months old and would lamb down at about a year old if caught by the tup. Hill hoggs are slower maturing but the strongest ones are capable of coming a raid by second time over. If they ended up in lamb they would need special care and attention, should they be left out on the hill unnoticed their condition will most probably drop dramatically and they could well lamb down without any milk or end up dragging themselves down trying to rear a lamb.

As the hoggs are the future of the ewe flock the idea is to have them mature and grow before going to the tup at 18 months of age, give them a good start in life.

Years back hill farms didn't always have much in - bye ground with them and so hoggs couldn't be held off from the ewes and kept safe from the tups. This problem was overcome by breeking. Breeking involves sewing a square of cloth over the tail and so preventing the tup accessing the rear end of the hogg - ovine chastity belts!

Breeks were often off cuts from the woollen mills although I have always used unbleached calico, which when removed after tup time can be washed and stored for the next time. The packing needle from shearing time is used alongside string and the material is sown onto the wool with a running stitch around two sides and the top, there is one long, knotted stitch put through the wool on the tail.

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I hadn't come across anyone who breeked hoggs for a few years but was asked to do some just a week or two back, over the border in Scotland, unfortunately I didn't have the time to breek 350 hoggs for the guy but at least I know some out there do still breek.

The majority now run their hoggs off into the fields, often for most of the winter, putting them on to cake to encourage them to grow on better. Others pay for keep known as wintering on other farms on kinder lying ground and the hoggs leave the farm for a few months and return bouncing and bloomed of the skins with having been on better going.

To confuse you further............... In-bye hoggs do often get the chance of the tup, on purpose. These are far stronger sheep and would be enormous if left geld to run through for another year due to the ground they live on. So if you hear of someone lambing hoggs it isn't unusual but it would be highly unusual in sheep running on hill ground.

Tup hoggs are also used both on the hills and in-bye, they don't get many sheep - 30 is often deemed sufficient for a tup hogg. Some are only put out for a few days. It gives the shepherd an idea how they breed - what sort of offspring they are going to leave and it also gives the young lads an idea of what life is all about, they'll go to the ewes as shearlings and hopefully be able to do the job without fumbling about.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

tups a wandering

The hill tups are on the rake. I had a phone call with a shepherd from over the border on Monday lunch time, he'd spent all morning hunting his tups out; the first cut of sheep he came to on the hill had the wrong tup with them, he continued expecting to find he'd swapped with his neighbour and travelled to the adjoining cut of sheep. No, there was no tup there either, or the next cut. He gathered four cuts and found one tup.............

Even more frustrating was the fact this was day 16, the tups were wandering a tad soon really. After the 17 days you expect them to set off in search of a ewe to tup as you'd hope there would be very little choice for him by then, these ewes had caused trouble a day or two sooner than they ought of.

Were the tups ever found? Dunno! But they would be, a shepherd doesn't settle 'til he gets his tups back to their respective places.

Some hill farms don't have sufficient field ground to allow them to tup their ewes 'in-bye' - in an enclosed area - many are still tupped out on the open hill which necessitates daily herding, gathering every cut (heft) of sheep up to a) ensure the tup is there b) make life easier for the tup to find the ewes which require his services c) to enable the shepherd to cast an eye over the flock and get an idea of whether or not the tup is working properly and that he hasn't done himself a mischief.

Once second time over comes in (the second 17 day cycle) the tups are changed, just in case! you may think the tup appeared to be working well, however, if he hadn't you really don't want him left out with the ewes for a further 17 days, he is replaced, if possible with a fresh sheep who hopefully will work and catch any of the ewes which come back a tupping.

Out on the open hill second time over can be hard work for the shepherd, tups aren't content with small talk from the ewes, they want action and if it's not forthcoming on their doorstep they'll go looking for it and may wander a long way in their desire to search out a willing female. It was not unheard of for a shepherd to come in for lunch in the mid afternoon when herding on foot, the missing tup on the first cut materialising on the last cut of the hill and having to be driven back to where he was meant to be stationed, a lot of walking to keep the tups in their respective places, necessary though to ensure you know how your lambs are bred.

So, Tarset hill tups are into second time over, hopefully not too many ewes are seeking their services. Farmers and shepherds alike are waiting with baited breath to see how many ewes come back to be served, there'll always be an odd one, lets hope that's how it remains. Come the start of the fresh year the tups will be brought in, services required or not their job will be finished, just as you like to know when the lambing is due to start you also like to know it is going to end.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

shining light

Shep had a run in with the police tonight. Seems a long time since I've had a crack with a policeman, took a few seconds for it to sink in as to who it was that was shining their flash light into my car........obviously it was dark at the time!

I'd travelled over to Rothbury in the Coquet (a good half hour from here in a north easterly sort of direction). Anyhow, there's one of those wonderful things called a fish and chip shop which meant Shep didn't have to come home and burn something for dinner.

I pulled up outside with mouth watering and belly grumbling and commenced rummaging about to see if there was any money available when a flashlight lit up the windscreen followed by mutterings about not having a tax disc on display.

As already said it slowly dawned on me that this was a police officer and I may add a very pleasant one. A car check must obviously have already been done as he seemed to have a vague idea as to where I belonged and wasn't surprised to hear I was whom I said I was.

A rear light off apparently, and rightly so, on closer inspection there was no doubt what so ever, I did indeed have no drivers side back light - oops! unfortunately I'm not often behind my car when the lights are on. It was very kind of the officer to draw it to my attention and bode me on my way after watching me hunting for my roll of red insulating tape (used for draft ewes horns), so that I could tape my tax disc onto the windscreen which had inadvertently fallen off the windscreen and found itself lying in the passenger foot well with all the chocolate wrappers, baler twine, calving ropes?, dog leads, shears, mouldy things I'd sooner forget about etc that any self respecting car would have in its foot well!

As I was making the journey home, with fish and chips steaming beside me for company I mused over the unexpected meeting, my luck at meeting an affable bobby. No need to produce my documents at a police station within seven days as used to happen in my youth, no threatening tickets to be signed by a garage to prove the work had been done, just a polite warning, or ought I say, drawing to my attention, of the fault on my vehicle.

Wonder what might have happened in daylight? The syringes and needles on the dashboard for starters, lying alongside a skewer for the wool bags (a long dangerous looking stabbing type of device), then there are the four pairs of hand shears in the door well........ the heavy stone hammer lying in the back, alongside a spade and pick...umm, the two dogs (one which can smile in a menacing fashion)................. what else have I got lying around in this vehicle of mine? Do y'know, I actually dread to think, I could be had up for all manner of things. Then there's the question of the pocket knife I always carry, I do believe that's illegal nowadays.

I concluded that this is a rural area and obviously the police officer would fully understand, however, I will, eventually, get around to having a mucking out session - that's a good idea! See if I can find the floor in my vehicle and who knows, I might unearth something I'd forgotten I had. I'll put that on my list of to do's......

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Wet and Wild

Well? - Water! Oh, how often that has been the beginning of a foolish few minutes between Shep and the better half as a game of word association ensues. We both have a terrible habit of saying 'well.......' could mean any number of things and more often than not that is the start and finish of the sentence. "Well.........."

"Water", "rain", "puddle", "flooding", "Noah's ark"........................

We're very fortunate here in Tarset, unlike many of our Cumbrian neighbours. Our homes and businesses are not under water, our bridges are still standing. We have a great deal to be thankful for.

Life in Tarset is pretty much waterlogged, quad bikes are leaving black marks across normally dry fields; tractors are making a mess. Sheep driven in to pens are making a mash on the fields; lots of tiny cloven feet digging in to soft ground leave a black trail behind them, until the next deluge when it washes in again.

The blue faced leicester tups aren't too happy being out with the ewes, they have very fine skins and can be seen sheltering behind stone walls away from the driving rain. Some are trying to head for home, especially now that the earlier tupped ewes aren't in need of their services.

Ewes have an oestrus cycle of 17 days, after which the tups are changed around for fear one hasn't worked somewhere. Every farmer and shepherd is herding his ewes with fingers crossed, hoping not too many are coming back to the tups as they don't want the lambing to drag on forever. There will always be the odd one but you truly hope and pray there isn't the activity there was over the first 17days.

The services of the boys are almost obsolete and they are beginning to dream of those sheltered closes/paddocks, or even buildings where cake will be offered in troughs and life will be comfortable.

The hill tups haven't been out very long at all, they are better suited for poorer weather, being a woollier/hardier breed. Some have struggled to get their ewes gathered and tups out. Burns in flood have delayed some hill sheep from being gathered, those that have to cross burns to come in to the pens have had to wait 'till the water ran in. For some the traditional date for releasing the tups was put back a day or two as the driving winds and rain made conditions unsuitable for hassling flocks.

There is no doubt about it November saw very poor stock weather. Sheep are hattered. They had a kind back end and went into tup time and winter in good fettle but weather like we've seen over the past month has trashed them and for all ground is still green and growy looking the flocks will be beginning to take hurt. Tighter woolled sheep will be surviving the wet weather better than those with more open skins, they won't be getting soaked to the skin as easily. You know yourselves how much happier you feel if wearing decent waterproofs and remaining relatively dry rather than being soaked to the skin with out waterproofs on - stock react exactly the same.

Some cattle have been housed and some haven't, there are those who winter out anyhow. Vets are reporting a high incidence of pneumonia in the cattle sheds, not surprising as up until recently the weather was mild and many cattle would be housed wet. Regardless as to whether they were housed wet or not the mild, muggy, damp weather is sufficient to cause pneumonia in the sheds.

All doom and gloom? No, not really, just a fact of life. We have stock in Tarset, it hasn't been washed away down the rivers and thankfully the rain we had over the past month wasn't snow. Don't get me wrong, hard weather is kinder to stock. Snow and frost is kinder stock weather than torrential rain, so long as it is in moderation. Had the rainfall and wind that came with it been snow we really would have had problems.

On that note the first snowfall in Tarset came on Friday 27th November - a dusting on only the highest of ground, with a heavier dusting on Monday 30th November. December came in with a hard frost with -7 recorded at Shep's house. We can cope with weather like that.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

small world - Lands End to John O' Groats

Aye! It's a small world alright. A few weeks back Shep was left reeling in shock - on more than one count.

Firstly a 'phone call from Cornwall, now that's away down south somewhere, not far from Lands End seemingly and they have sheep down there! Apparently some neighbours were holidaying in a farm cottage in Cornwall and the farmer mentioned he was looking for someone to lamb for him, name and 'phone number was handed over and a very interesting conversation ensued.

For starters I had never spoken to anyone who was lambing in October, I quickly realised he must have a flock of Dorsets and this was confirmed. I've met one in my lifetime - a white thing with pink skin on its nose and I'm not sure it was really pure or not but they have the ability to lamb 3 times in 2 years which explains why they must have been tupped in May (just as lambing was drawing towards a close in Tarset). Anyhow the main flock was due to lamb towards the end of February (does it not snow down there?) and unfortunately this was not going to fit in with Sheps workload or I could have found myself having a busman's holiday in Cornwall!

The second 'phone call in the same week came from Caithness which is the other end of the spectrum being near to John 0'Groats, now this call was linked to the blog. An enquiry about a photo that had been posted. Shep's cover has been blown, that I find quite unnerving............ seemingly a phone call from an auctioneer away up in the top of Scotland to an auctioneer at Hexham Mart soon revealed the identity and 'phone number of the 'elusive' Shep - there are obviously few 'peculiar individuals' in Tarset with 'the characteristics of a Cheviot' !! What a surprise!!

Both 'phone conversations were very interesting, although talking to complete strangers it is wonderful to be able to feel at ease with like minded individuals, the common denominator of course is farming, sheep and the weather. I received a brief synopsis of the farming practices from either end of the country, fascinating and enough to whet my appetite to head in both directions and see for myself. One thing that all three of us seemed to share equally was the weather, I learnt it doesn't just rain in Tarset !

Monday, 16 November 2009

Ewes a - raid

It's that time of year. Testosterone and progesterone levels are racing in the ovine world.

The ewes are hunting out the tups and the tups are finding ways to get out to the ewes.

The ewes 'come a raid' - they're ready to stand for the tup and hunt him out, heading to the fences, looking to have their sexual desires fulfilled. There is no doubt that scenting comes into this and anyone who has handled a tup near to tup time will know what I mean about them being ripe, they not only purple up in the lisks (groin) but also have a strong smell. The ewes will also emit a scent as you readily see the tups, noses raised and top lip curled up as they scent the air, seeking the scent of the ewe that is ripe.

Tups escape out of the fields they have been put into prior to tup time. These are usually the best fenced areas on the farm and hopefully will hold the boys in, however some can be professional jumpers/creepers and will try to find a way out and will often succeed. Annoying, as it means lambing starts early. A head count is required every morning to ensure the boys are where they're meant to be but even if they have just been missing a few hours they can still cause a fair bit of damage.They may find themselves barred up in a building to ensure they don't get up to mischief.

The following photos show the determination of a ewe to entice a tup to her. She failed and all parties involved seemed highly frustrated

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Coming down off the hill, ewe and tup must have scented each other
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as you can see she has been tailed
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A hugely frustrating scenario, there are now two ewes, all parties are willing, there is muttering from both sides of the fence, tail waggling from the ewes, lip licking from the tup who is frantically clawing at the fence with his front feet and getting extremely agitated - to no avail. A strong pig net fence with barbed wire across the top will save the day, everyone will have to wait until the allotted time especially as these photos were taken in October. The estrus cycle for the ewe is 17 days so they have to be patient until the next time, or in this case the next time again

The earlier lambing flocks have the tups running with them by now. The gestation period for a sheep being 5 months less 5 days, many release their tups on the kinder ground on Guy Fawkes night (5th Nov) to have them come in to lamb on all fools day (1st April). This confuses me as surely that is five months less four days? The hill tups will be going out from the 20th - 25th of the month, everyone has varying dates but basically later in the month will hopefully see a bite more grass when the lambing commences and who knows? mebbes even kinder weather!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Tups in Tarset

I did say I hoped to be able to let you know what types of tups came into the area this year, so I had a quick whizz round the valley, camera in hand and have come up with the following:

Hexham type Blackfaced tup
Posted by PicasaScotch type Blackfaced tup from Stirling and a South Country Cheviot tup
Posted by PicasaScotch type Blackfaced tup from Lanark
Posted by PicasaSwaledale tups from St John's Chapel, Weardale
Posted by PicasaSouth Country Cheviots from Lockerbie
Posted by PicasaBlue faced Leicester from Hexham
Posted by Picasamillenium blue and texel from Carlisle
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There may be others that I'm not aware of but this gives you a good cross section of tups to be used this year. The horned sheep will all be breeding replacement hill sheep. The cheviots will be used for crossing on the hill ewes to give a better store lamb although some are introducing Cheviot ewes into their flocks

The bluefaced leicester crossed onto a blackface or swaledale sheep produces a breed known as a mule which is the mainstay breed used by lowland sheep producers. Thousands of mule ewe lambs are sold every back end through Hexham mart, they will be crossed with terminal sires such as suffolks or texels to produce prime fat lambs.

The millenium blue (cross between blue de maine and texel) and the texel are crossed onto almost anything to give a good fat lamb, although these two will be used for pure breeding by a farmer with better ground which carries texel ewes.

So there you go - food for thought - because ultimately that is what these boys will be producing - food.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Bellingham Auction Mart - THE LAST MART

Shep has been informed that the book The Last Mart covering the last three sheep sales held at Bellingham Mart which closed in 2004 is no longer available from the author.

Copies can now only be acquired from the publishers website on the following link :

Apparently a unique, one off will be available by auction on 28th November at Tarset Village Hall when a fundraising event will be held to raise funds towards the printing costs of the Tarset News (the local newsletter which is sent free to every household in the parish).

The signed copy of the book available is a hardcover image wrapped version which not only contains double page spread photographs but also a collection of photos taken in the Cheviot after the last sale. It also has the correct date on the cover. A true collectors piece. It is expected sealed bids will be taken details of which may appear on the Tarset website.

The DVD launched at the same time has also been selling like hot cakes with a further print run having been done. It is available at the Bellingham Heritage Centre. Click on the following link for a taster of the DVD

Monday, 2 November 2009

Tailing ewes

Shep has been busy tailing ewes. Tup time is fast approaching and many like their ewes to have been tailed - their bikini lines trimmed - ready for the boys being let loose.

The whole idea of tailing is to give the lads an easier access and also to ensure they have less chance of hurting themselves. Since the ewes were clipped in the summer one or two may well have scoured out a bit, causing muck to gather on the wool on their tails, not nice for the boys to have to circumnavigate lumps of muck in their quest to tup the girls. The gimmers will also have bushier tails than the ewes due to the fact they were clipped earlier. Should we get frost or snow at tup time that can also cling to the long wool on the tail and cause discomfort to the tup.

Hill sheep have long tails but the wool is usually only removed around the area of the back end, although some do like to give a brazilian and bare the tail off completely and crutch at the same time, being old fashioned I don't like the look of this but it is thought to make life easier in the spring when the fresh grass can literally run through the ewes and again cause scouring.

Traditionally hand shears are used, more and more farmers are beginning to use the electric machine which makes the tails bristly and so has to be done well in advance to allow the wool to grow and soften before the tups are let out, no point in trying to make their job easier then making them work through the equivalent of wire wool is there?

Anyhow, that's what I've been busy doing for days, 100's of ewes have been tailed, in fact 1,000's. Day in day out bending over at the back end of a sheep removing wool off tails. Now there are fat tails and thin tails, clean tails and shitty tails, tails that wiggle and tails that don't, tails attached to sheep that jump and cause mayhem and then the ones that stand quiet and co-operate, but at the end of the day tailing ewes must be paramount to working in a factory. One of those mind blowingly monotonous jobs which can either leave you blaspheming or daydreaming.................which leads us on to conkers.

CONKERS? yep, I didn't say bonkers, although that is highly probable. There I was tailing swale ewes (bushy tailed characters who weren't enjoying the attention I was giving them) and I began to marvel at the career I had chosen for myself all those centuries ago, one which seemingly meant I spend an awful lot of my time bent over looking at my feet. I was obviously having one of those off days, a lets feel sorry for Shep day - when something hit me on the head - did it knock any sense in? Well no, of course not! It did however get me onto a different train of thought - Conkers!
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I was working below horse chestnuts and on closer inspection of the ground around me, as that being basically all I could see due to my stance, there were conkers all around. Ah! my childhood..... many a happy hour spent along side my cousins hunting conkers and then duly competing with them (somehow mine never survived very long compared to those of the lads), what fun we had.

My musings continued, kids don't seem to be as conker daft as we were, is this due to computer games and DVD's I wondered? Possibly, but also we now wrap kids in cotton wool, I recall hearing or reading somewhere that there are health and safety issues surrounding conkering, it will be deemed un safe for the kids of this generation to partake in such a sport. If that's the case who on earth is going to tail ewes in the future? Hand shears that could stab or cut yourself and electric shears with which you could electrocute yourself? If we worried about all the probabilities we'd never have any fun. It was at this stage that I concluded the conkers had sent me bonkers as obviously I was considering tailing ewes as fun. Thankfully the task for the day was almost over and there was hope my sanity might return.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Autumn in Tarset

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If it wasn't for the signs of autumn we could be forgiven for thinking we were still in summertime. This last month/6 weeks has seen tremendously mild weather, not always dry however but seems drier than what we experienced through the summer months. It has been so mild that Shep has often been working in a T-shirt and maggots were still to be found just ten days ago.

The clocks changed last weekend, dark now by 5pm give or take 10 minutes or so, a welcome respite in my eyes, an excuse to get finished at night and settled in the house. The winter months giving Shep the opportunity to re-charge the batteries ready for the onslaught which will commence in the spring. Not everyone views the 'dark winter days' quite like I do but bear in mind any of you who dread these dark nights, it won't be long 'til they draw out again. By mid January they will be pulling out with spring just around the corner - not long they way the time flies.
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We have had a tremendous show of autumn colour, not many frosts or gales has allowed the trees to show their splendour, sunshine has been lacking of late to accentuate the colours but they are still there to enjoy. Even the hill ground has shown its beauty with its myriad of rusts,golds and browns.

Recent rain has set the fish running, they've been hanging around in the North Tyne river waiting for a chance to head for their spawning grounds. Anglers have been out in force this past week trying to hook that thirty pounder before the season closes tonight (31st Oct), a quick squint at the Linn (waterfall) this afternoon revealed sea trout of various sizes jumping, a salmon wasn't spotted but they will be there. Further heavy rainfall is forecast for tomorrow and these fish will be so happy to be able to negotiate the burns with ease and get to the redds, their spawning grounds, and do what nature has sent them up here to do. It's good to see them back.

Farmers have enjoyed the weather this back end too, but (there always has to be a but!) cattle are needing a bite of extra feed, silage is beginning to head out to the beasties, unfortunately by this time of the year even a dry day has little drying ground wise and so the ground is getting soft and cattle are beginning to plunge.

It's really about time they were heading for their winter sheds before they plunge and poach the ground too much, however, the mild weather causes problems when it comes to housing cattle as they will sweat with a high probability of pneumonia setting in. Right at this moment it would be unwise to house them, colder, sharper weather would be preferred.

With the forecast for further rain the ground will be getting wetter and cattle will sink further but until 'healthier' weather appears those cattle will most probably remain outside - deemed the lesser of two evils.

Sheep are taking no hurt, hill ewes are fit this back end and are coming a raid (on heat), hanging to fences and teasing the tups who are beginning to fight and sort out the pecking order, they too are fit and waiting impatiently to be let out to the ewes. Tups will be set out shortly, those who lamb earlier will probably have their tups out by the end of this coming week, the hill tups will have to wait until later in the month.

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Friday, 30 October 2009

Lanark Tup Lamb Sale

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Well Shep made it over the border again and headed up to Lanark for the second days sale of tup lambs.

The day previous had been the shearling day but Shep remained in Northumberland to sort the lambs out-bye ready for the store sale the following day and get the ewe hoggs ready for the wagon which was booked to take them away to winter keep as the shepherd himself needed to get to Lanark to purchase his shearlings, no great hardship as Shep was just trotting along as a spectator - a day away for the lamb sale would be fine.

Heading off to spectate meant there was no need to leave home at 5.30am as those had done the day previously, no we had a leisurely start and steady run up there, arriving just after 11. The sale was due to start at 10.30 so we knew we would miss some of those in the catalogue, it's sad but for once a lie in held priority to getting there on time. If only we'd known the sale was rescheduled to start at 11 we may well have left half an hour sooner! Seemingly there were a 100 less tup lambs forward than on the catalogue and so the auctioneers delayed the start of the sale by half an hour, we missed the Drumgrange lamb which sold for £36,000 quite literally by seconds - that's life! (I did enjoy the leisurely start to the day so won't grumble)

I have to say I do scratch my head at these prices, a lamb making £36,000? Okay, it would be bought by a consortium of farmers - a leg each so to speak, they would either take sheep to him or get semen from him implanted into their ewes, but I still can't help think it's a lot of money, however it was a long way from the top price of the day.

It would be unfair to pass judgement on the lambs forward as we found ourselves perched up in the gods; not the ideal place to study a sheep, I also never went through the pens, due mainly to the fact the ring was packed and had I left my spot I might never have got close enough to see a sheep in the ring for the rest of the day. I stood glued to the spot for the duration of the sale.

I will say that I was taken aback at the amount of black wool visible in the sheep. Scotch sheep were renowned for clean colours and clean wool, as I've already said in a past blog the 'type' has changed in recent years and show more colour (blacker faces and darker legs), undoubtedly when you get colour like that it will invariably show in the wool but a number of these sheep were being sold with black collars, a lot of black in the tail and no doubt any amount of spots to be found throughout their bodies. That I did not expect and especially not at the money they were realising. Quite an eye opener I can tell you.

The photograph at the top of this page is a lamb off Nunnerie, I would like to tell you it was the one which made £60,000 and duly topped the sale, but that would be a lie, it was the sheep which followed at £22,000 - why? well, it's one of those embarrassing moments that Shep often has too many of. As the auctioneer passed the £30,000 mark I realised I maybe ought to be taking a photo, unfortunately as I raised the camera to my eye the batteries fell out the bottom of it and clattered everyone below on the head - umm! not the brightest of moves! I received one or two glowers and wished a hole would open up, all four batteries were kindly returned by which time the tup had been sold. Only I could cause mayhem when you truly couldn't have heard a pin drop..................

For someone who always feels self conscious when using the camera in public I really could have done without drawing attention to myself, apologies to all those whose concentration was shattered by my reckless batteries. Hence the photograph is of the next tup in the ring - end of story!

My spirits were lifted shortly after when a text came through on the mobile to thank me for doing a good job of drawing the lambs yesterday followed with the prices they had made. The little things in life can mean a lot.
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Above: tup lamb off Connachan selling for £26,000

Friday, 16 October 2009

six day standstill

Nothing quite like rising early, when still dark and leaving home almost as early to arrive out-bye to find it's not only dark but also foggy! Told you, the fog always waits 'til Shep has to go out-bye!

An hour was spent supping coffee and having a crack, listening to the woes and complications of work/buying/ selling and the weather before heading for home, just as most were rolling over and thinking about rising on a Saturday morning.

What woes? Well, the pressure is on, these sheep need gathered for keeling, tailing, dosing, tagging and all manner of things. There's always tomorrow except time's getting on. Y'see the ewe hoggs (keeping ewe lambs) are coming off their mothers on the hill and heading away for winter keep.

They are to go nearer the coast onto better ground, safe from marauding tups and somewhere kinder to encourage them to grow. The wagon is booked for a few days time as the farm they are heading to wants them there at that specific time as the resulting six day standstill (unable to move stock off the farm for six days) fits in conveniently with the farmer for that particular week, doesn't disrupt any important sale dates. Time is ticking on...

There's a few days yet except there are two important tup sales to attend as tups are required, have to be bought, are definitely needed. Time is still ticking on.....

In the meantime it is realised that cattle have to be bought in, a new venture for this particular shepherd, one necessitated by his employers. Further complications arise, as, unlike the tups to be bought, which can go into the shed which is a vet approved isolation unit and therefore not disrupting any selling, the cattle will definitely put the farm on a standstill and there are still a number of store lambs to be sold.

The lambs could go this Friday, unfortunately that coincides with one of the afore mentioned tup sales which means an early rise and away to get to the sale in time and anyhow there is no time to sort and draw the lambs as the ewe hoggs are to attend to......

The following Friday is the first of the cattle sales, as there are few sales for this particular breed of cattle then absenteeism is not an option. Complications are arising and as the mathematics is done it is becoming apparent that these lambs may well be stuck on the place until mid November, by which time the grass will be in short supply and the lambs could well be going back over.

Once again the problems raise their ugly head. There is a way around this, someone else - Shep or who so ever it may be - will have to go, get the store lambs gathered, shed them and load the wagon, follow it to the mart and sell the sheep therefore enabling the shepherd to attend to the necessities of buying the stock he requires, or else those lambs will have to wait another month before going to market, an option the shepherd would prefer not to take as no one likes to see their stock depreciating.

It has just dawned on me that you're most likely wondering if it wouldn't be more convenient to sell the lambs on a Monday or Wednesday, would that not fit in better with the sales/work and weather? It may have done except the sale for store lambs is on a Friday, so Friday it has to be.

Pre 2001 this problem would never have arisen, however today, post 2001, buying and selling often revolves around a six day cycle. Mistakes have been made and it is easy to see how this happens but the consequences can be severe - a breach of rules and regulations is not taken lightly by those who enforce them.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

pea souper

Autumn is definitely upon us, the trees are changing and if the winds are co-operative we ought to be in for a beautiful show of autumn colour. The bracken is already over and in the right light make the hills look beautiful with all the different shades of brown and gold.

Then there is those foggy mornings, which aren't always present in the back end, they usually appear when ever Shep is heading away out-bye to gather, just to make life difficult!

We had one such morning recently. I headed off into the Rede valley when life still seemed dark; another sign of autumn - the mornings being slow to lighten. It was probably darker than it ought to have been as when my eyes finally focused and I realised the car windscreen wasn't misted up it dawned on me I was driving in a pea souper, surely that meant I could have been spared and allowed myself the indulgence of another hour in bed?

The fog/mist, whatever you want to call it, was in the bottoms, once I climbed up out of the North Tyne valley and onto the tops it was clear. I stopped and took in the view. The cheviot hills were standing proud above the white blanket, as was the highest ground in Tarset, other than that the North Tyne and Rede Valleys were totally obliterated by a mystical white blanket of fog a beautiful sight in its own but I was in for a greater pleasure. The sun was trying to rise away in the East and it was fiery red - awesome, breathtaking, beautiful, well worth stopping and appreciating mother nature at it's finest. I didn't have the camera but who needs to record a magical moment like that?

On I went, now as I was expected to be gathering sheep I truly was thinking that this was a wasted journey other than for the pleasure of seeing such a beautiful phenomenon which many would be unaware of.

I was mistaken!

It was decided to go out and gather, and yes, it was clear out on the top but as I dropped a few hundred feet I found myself in a different world, an almost surreal world, a world not at all ideal for gathering sheep.

It is so easy to lose ones sense of direction in such conditions and believe you me it is quite correct that you can find yourself walking in circles. Fortunately I was on foot, I say fortunately as I managed to direct myself into many an area which would not have been suitable for the quad bike, also I was able to use my ears, I could hear things that would have been masked by the engine of the bike. A lamb bleating was a definite clue that sheep were somewhere, but where?

Years ago I learnt (through a white out in a snow storm) that should all else fail and you truly are lost, (which even on ground you know well is easy to do) you can follow the water down. A drain will run in a certain direction and eventually lead you to a burn (stream) which will lead you to civilisation. Usually when I recount this I end up saying "and eventually you'll get to the seaside"! It will help you get your bearings though. Also take note of the direction the wind is hitting your face when you set off, or if no wind look to see which way the grasses are bent over as they usually bend from West to East (or is it the other way round?)

Fortunately the ground I was on was ring fenced, a long oblong strip of hill ground of only 1,000 acres which had a road running parallel to it and another along the bottom (horizontal I guess!) the sound of the traffic giving me a good idea as to where exactly I was, as for the sheep? Well, I made a lot of noise and the dogs bounded around in front, occasionally I got a ghostly glimpse of something sheep like and set the dogs in that direction with fingers crossed.

To be honest with you no one in their right mind would gather in such a pea-souper.

Another problem arose as we met at the bottom of the hill and found there were quite a number of sheep in front of us - thank the lord for small mercies! Our problems were just starting though, as we now had a road to cross, not just any old road either, but the A68, the main road to Scotland. The gates aren't far off a brow of a hill and we could barely see across the road as it was........ my knees were quaking I can tell you.

Phone calls back to the farm for assistance proved fruitless and so we stood and pondered. It boiled down to our hearing again. We waited until we could hear no traffic on the road at all from either direction and made a dash for it, just getting over by the skin of our teeth. 200+ sheep didn't realise just how much we wanted them to dash, the grass verges were a tasty bite and with dogs tied on make shift leads of baler twine it all looked a tad dicey for a while. Time to say Thank You to the wagon driver who eventually noticed us and an apology to him also for disrupting his difficult drive on that particular morning. I have to say that personally by this stage a stiff whisky might have gone down well!!

The outcome? I could barely believe it when the hill came into sight a couple of hours later that there were only one or two strays left out there - nothing short of a miracle in my eyes!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Shep needs to get out more!

Now Shep has been down the local, for the first time I may add since the serious bout of whisky flu' which I suffered away back in July. I have concluded I really need to get out more. I am often told that I live in my own little world and I am beginning to believe that....

For weeks I have been in the company of sheep and like minded individuals, the crack has revolved around what we do, the trade, the weather, the future of farming, implications of electronic tagging and all manner of rural and farming crack.

But tonight I have been educated. In all honesty I thought it was one of those piss take moments. Oh how I love the cleverness of the internet! A quick google search and I found I wasn't getting the wool pulled over my eyes, oh no! what I was being told down the pub was in fact true.

Clothing for ferrets! Yep, you heard right, not just clothing I may add, all manner of things; from dresses, T-shirts, bathrobes, shampoos, medication, bedding, you name it, it seems you can get it for a ferret. There again, mebbes anyone reading this already has a life out there in the big wide world and knows such things. I will admit I knew you could get designer wear for dogs but ferrets? I ask you - has the world gone mad?

I have ferrets. have had ferrets since I was a kid. They live in a hutch and bedding consists of barley straw and shavings. They even have a collar - a battery operated tracking collar for fear they pop down a hole and don't return in a hurry, gives me a sound idea where to start digging.

Y'see my ferrets are like my dogs, they work for a living. I try to keep them comfortable and happy and when time allows we set off, ferrets and I along with a bag full of nets and we set about catching rabbits. From what I've gathered on the internet tonight this isn't normal, ferrets are in actual fact a designer accessory with designer accessories attached!

I said earlier that I'm often told I live in my own little world, well, I know I've had a couple of nips of grouse but my wits are still about me (spelling ain't that bad so must be fairly sober) and I can't help but conclude that if the 'real' world consists of people owning ferrets as a design accessory and dressing them in a wardrobe greater than my own I truly think I will remain where I am - in my 'own little world' - I feel safe here, it seems a normal world, a world where ferrets work for a living, get dropped in the water trough on a hot day in the summer for a swim, snuggle up in a deep bed of barley straw and run around on shavings, get fed the same dry food as the dogs and occasionally get a fresh rabbit for a treat. Do I really need to join the 'real' world?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Tup sales

Shep wandered away up to Lairg to a tup sale so I guess you all realised this is the time of year for buying in the 'boys'.

The tup (ram) sales start a lot earlier in the season, the main one around the borders being Kelso Tup Sale which was held on Friday 10th September. You will not find your hill breeds at Kelso, hence the earlieness of the sale. The breeds represented at Kelso Tup Sale are the more in-bye types, Suffolks, Texel, Blue de Maine and many others for by. The Blue Faced Leicester is also well represented at kelso and some on the locals from around these parts will set foot looking for a tup to cross onto their ewes.

The sale is held earlier in the season due to the fact that it is predominantly supported by the 'in - bye men' who lamb earlier than those of us around here and so need to have their stock tups bought sooner in the year.

From the middle of September onwards there have been tup sales the length and breadth of the country, every breed imaginable has been available for sale. I met my first ever Berrichon tup the other week on a farm in Cumbria, he is to be put out with mule ewes and it will be interesting to see how he crosses; what sort of lambs he leaves.

As the tup sale season draws on we get into the hill breeds with different areas of the country having different 'speciality' breeds. At Hexham (our local mart) you have the Northumberland or Hexham Type Blackfaced Tup sale on the second Monday in October (12th), should you require the scotch type blackface you need to head further North. Stirling (incorporating Perth) and Newton Stewart are past, Lanark is yet to come and there are numerous others with each centre having it's own specific type, for all the Scotch Blackface is a specific breed there are definite variations to type depending on area.

For Swaledale tups you would head West into Cumbria and the dales, as you would for Dalesbred and Rough Fell sheep also. South Country Cheviots would be found at Lockerbie, Park North Country Cheviots also but on an early day and of course the Lairg type North Country Cheviot is at Lairg! Hexham Mart does have a sale later in the season which incorporates all breeds, local breeders bring their Swaledales, Cheviots, Blackfaces alongside Bluefaced Leicesters, Suffolks, Texels and Beltex.

So not only are farmers and shepherds busy selling their breeding sheep at the moment they are also seeking the sires, which may involve many hours travelling to seek the 'type' required. I know of three farmers who travelled to Lairg and back in one day - 12hours travelling with a tup sale thrown in, between them they brought seven tups back to Northumberland!!

Since 2001 anything you bring onto the holding puts you under a six day standstill, actually it's not just anything you buy, should you take stock to auction and not happy with the trade end up bringing them home you find you're unable to move stock off that holding for a further 6 days. This is an absolute nightmare as specific sales are on specific days and a sale waits for no one.

The back end sales are when sheep farmers see their returns, they have invested in their sheep for a year and reap the financial rewards through the 2-3 hectic months which run prior to winter. There are very few businesses which receive little income for three quarters of the year and then in the quarter when they can earn themselves some money find they have to be careful not to get tied up with the six day standstill rule.

Fortunately there are ways around the problem, some farmers have ground beyond the farm which comes under a different holding number and can use this ground for security under the six day rule, also isolation units are permitted if licenced by a vet. The whole idea is to prevent the spread of disease, such as foot and mouth, understandable when sheep can travel the length and breadth of the countryside, however, at times one can't help but think it is bureaucracy gone mad.

Many of the Tarset Farmers are heading into Scotland this year for their stock sires. The Hexham type Blackface has been getting a slating from many over the past couple of years, the breed does have a small gene pool, also it is a larger cousin to the Scotch type, coupled with more wool.

Size takes feeding. Now don't get me wrong, you need a sheep with a good carcase but the longer Hexham type is going out of fashion at the moment, they don't seem to thrive right on some of this poorer ground and allegedly aren't always crossing true; You buy the type of tup you like, the type you have in your minds eye that you would wish your ewe flock to look like, you then find that this tup doesn't leave behind many lambs resembling him - he's not crossing true - a huge disappointment and one not easily rectified.

Then there is the wool issue. Barer skinned sheep can be found at Hexham and a decent purl (curl in the wool) is still seen as important for the breeding of mule ewe lambs but there are still a number of heavier skinned sheep coming through the ring at Hexham and with the wet winters we have been seeing recently it is commonly thought that the sheep are hindered by carrying heavy wet fleeces around and after all the wool doesn't have the value off the sheep's back that it used to have.

The 'scotch' men have put alot of effort into their sheep of later years. They used to be renowned for having black and white faces with straighter, hairier wool. These changed almost overnight, with consensus of opinion being that the Swaledale was put through them, producing a sheep more favourable to the fashions liked in this area. Darker, cleaner haired sheep with a weatherproof but purly skin, a good depth of carcase with out too much length, although having said that they have also put length into their sheep with some of them now resembling Dougal from the 'Magic Roundabout'!!

So, we'll wait and see what the tup sales have to offer, the following week will be a busy one. I myself hope to be able to attend Lanark lamb sale on 16th, curiosity can be a killer!! Hopefully, I'll be able to report and let you all know what breeds of tup have come into the area this year

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Store lambs

Shep had a query lately. What is a store lamb?

Well, it's not just store lambs, there are store sheep and store cattle. Generally anything that is sold STORE is basically NOT FAT.

Store sales are a weekly event and there are buyers who only buy store animals and finish them. In other words by whatever means they choose they get those animals fat and then sell them for slaughter.

Hill farms don't always have the ground to get their stock finished (fattened) many lambs come off their mothers fat and go away for slaughter as such but there are those which haven't got plenty of cover on their backs and they need a kinder bite. Fogs (as explained in a past blog)are useful for putting fettle on the sheep but it all depends on how many you have which need to be finished off as grass can soon disappear if there are many hungry mouths. Also the growing season is shorter on these higher, harder farms.

Those buying out of the store can often be arable men, needing something to eat the stubble but not wishing to have sheep full time, dairy men also buy in stores as their fields are 'redundant' in the winter months. Some have sheds and put the stock inside and fatten on cake, others may have troughs outdoors and also feed cake.

The store buyers are an important link, especially for hill farming. The store trade was poor last back end, however, the fat price lifted in February and those who had bought store lambs would see a good return, therefore they are prepared to pay more this year. As is always the case in farming, if trade is good then the money goes round.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cattle - who'd have them?

'Where there's live ones there's dead ones', a saying known only too well in the farming sector which covers life in general. The recent accident with a heifer and a cattle grid got Shep on thinking.......... Oh, oh! That's often dangerous!

Why keep cattle?

They are big and heavy which can cause soft ground to be plunged up, they can cause physical grief to those whom work with them, believe you me when they stand on your foot you know about it and a kick has dropped many a man to his knees, so why on earth bother with them?

Basically they complement the grazing for sheep. Cattle have a different grazing pattern and prefer longer grass to sheep which enables the grass to be kept at a consistent length for the sheep to graze. Also cattle are worth a fair bit of money, there again, the losses are greater should you have one die on you.

Generally they are less time consuming than sheep. Sheep are forever coming into the pens for something or other, whereas cattle seem to need less doing to them, except for winter that is when they are in sheds and need feeding daily and bedding regularly. Calving can go by without too much incident or it can be a nightmare, now a sheep can be caught out in the open and wrestled to the ground to assist it to lamb, not quite so easy with cows!

They are an expensive commodity to look after though, most of the hay and silage made during the summer is needed for the cattle and then there is the bedding to buy in too. However, the returns on the finished article are high, so long as not too many losses are incurred.

But why keep them? It pays in farming not to have all your eggs in one basket, quite frankly over the last few years sheep trade has been dreadful, fortunately the cattle trade has helped balance the books. So not only do they complement the sheep grazing, you also have something to fall back on should sheep trade take a hammering and lets face it, we all like a bit of beef for Sunday dinner.

At what cost? The crack (gossip) at the mart the other day was of yet another farmer in Northumberland coming to grief from cattle, the air ambulance was involved, the condition of the guy in question is unknown at the moment, there's no doubt about it though he'll be very sore.

So should we get rid of cattle all together? Where would you end with that logic? A walker was once suspected of being killed by tups in a field, does that mean we should get rid of all sheep too? There is danger around every corner, working with livestock can be unpredictable you need to keep your wits about you, show common sense and often have good luck on your side. There are accidents on farms but then we have very few (if any) accidents involving pedestrians and motor vehicles in this area, London will probably have a high number of pedestrian injuries but no livestock related injuries.......... so where would you stop?

I'm a shepherd and although I have a huge soft spot for the good old Galloway which I was fortunate to work with for many a year I would choose sheep over cattle any day. Having said that I wouldn't like to see the countryside devoid of cattle, they have their uses, help the finances, taste good and I do like milk on my cereal. They are also great characters which are easily recognisable and due to the fact they have a longer life span than a sheep almost become one of the family (okay, not quite but I'm sure you get the gist!)Life without cattle would be miserable.

I can't help think that less staff on farms and an average age of around about 60 for a farmer are all contributory factors towards the accidents which happen. Poor financial returns on farming over past years may also contribute due to maintenance of fences, buildings etc being kept to an absolute minimum. Farmers are realistic, have money will spend, don't have money and you tighten your belt.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Hexham Draft Ewe Sale

Fresh from the trip to Lairg, Shep hit Northumberland soil just in time to get to the draft ewe sale at Hexham. The hill breeding sale. A highlight of the year at Bellingham Auction Mart when all the 'retired' ewes are brought down off the hills to be sold and spend the last of their breeding days on kinder, grassier ground in-bye.

Although there is no longer a Bellingham Mart the sale is held at Hexham and Shep never misses it.

A female breeding sale of hill sheep, predominantly Blackfaces with a good representation of Swaledales and a handful of Cheviots. The ewes are drafted off the hills as previously explained and sold at 5 or 6 year old. They must have a full mouth to be sold as fully warranted, that means all eight front teeth must still be in place and have a hold, they must also be sound of the bag (udder). Occasionally it will be put out that 'there are a couple with a side tooth out'; it pays to be honest and a side tooth is no great loss.

Numbers are declining, there were many farm names missing off the catalogue from a few years back, whether they are selling elsewhere or a change of farm policy I don't know but they were missing. Which possibly helped the trade which was strong, top price paid being £95 and many doubling the price they received last year.

The trade will actually have been helped by the strength in the fat ring. Fat sheep are realising good money and when farmers have it they will spend it. The mule ewe lamb trade has also been bouyant and as many of these sheep will be put to the Blue faced leicester tup to breed the mule lamb then again that will have helped the trade. About time too, the sheep industry has seen a few too many lean years of late with many tenant farmers hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Lets just hope the prices haven't risen too much and too quickly.

Gimmers were a roaring trade, these are usually the farmers second draw lambs from last year. After keeping his replacement ewe lambs he'll keep the best of the remainder of the ewe lambs and let them run on with the intention of selling them the following back end as gimmers. One lot of gimmers which Shep had dressed were sold last year for just forty odd pounds, the price you'd expect for a lamb, however the equivalent this year realised £106 - a vast improvement.

Of the 35 pens of gimmers forward 25 made £100+, the top price being £160 from four different farms. Gimmers of course have their full breeding lives ahead of them and are generally a good investment. I don't know that I have ever known the trade to be quite so high, other than in 2002 when those who had been killed out in 2001 were desperate to replace their sheep with good types.

Had we still been at Bellingham Mart the 'Nappers' would have been full to overflowing on the night, with glasses raised, crack flowing and a good sing song for bye. However those days are past and after Hexham ewe sale everyone trundled off in their own directions, home in time for tea and stock looked before bed. Not only is their a decline in sheep being sold but also a noticeable decline in the sociable aspect of these sheep gatherings.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Busmans Holiday ( Lairg Tup Sale)

Shep found herself up in Lairg at the start of the week. A trip which had been arranged for quite a while and which the week previous seemed unlikely to take place, however, at the eleventh hour there was light at the end of the tunnel and off to Lairg I headed.

Why Lairg? 300 miles from home and six hours travelling, for what? A holiday? Not quite, or at least not the sort of holiday many would envisage. No, I headed off for a tup (ram) sale. Hill type North Country Cheviots to be precise, or the 'Lairg type Cheviot'

Curiosity regarding the breed and its characteristics drew me up there along with the fact that Lairg auction is one of the few traditional auction sites remaining in our country today. No concrete and clanging of metal gates, no roofing over the pens - two wooden auction rings, grass pens and wooden gates and I may add as it was inclement weather there were clarts (mud) under foot! Just like the good old days when Bellingham Mart existed. A traditional, homely place full of character and warmth, friendly and vibrant.
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It was a long way to go to bump into neighbours, Northumberland was well represented as was the whole country with a contingent from Wales as well as further south. Everyone is looking to produce a better class of store/fat lamb from their ewes and there is no doubt about it these sheep have carcase and will undoubtedly be hardy individuals. Most are sold at 2 or 3 shear (years old) enabling them to mature naturally, not fed on pounds of cake to reach the size, therefore they ought not to melt when set out with ewes on the hard hill ground.

I was impressed with the breed on a whole although there did seem to be a variety of type. Trade was brisk with the average being £150 up on the year. A new breed record was set with a three shear from Badenloch realising £11,000 (he's pictured below)

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There are two auction rings at Lairg and whilst the tups were being sold in one the female breeding sheep were going under the hammer in the other. Ewes were also a flying trade, the sheep pictured below were off Armadale, Thurso and realsied £110 (each), quite a price for a draft ewe nearing the end of her days, being an older sheep she'll be expected to produce twins and hopefully have a further two years breeding in her. The fat trade is so good at the moment that these big heavy ewes are most likely worth £60 just to kill so that puts a good bottom in the market. These particular ewes were outstanding, hence the reason I followed them through the ring and even at the price they made you would be pleased to take them home.
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All in all it was a most enjoyable and educational experience, I was relieved that I managed to get and I'm sure sleeping most of the way there and back helped the journey pass quickly ( obviously I wasn't driving, there was a car full of us!)

'That's Life'

Farmers, shepherds and stocks men get accustomed to life's highs and lows. Working with the unpredictability of the weather, stock, machinery, trade and the government day in day out hardens them to a degree.

Having said that they care, that's why they do the job they do, it's in their hearts. There'll be the shrug of the shoulders and the utterance 'that's life' when things go wrong but there'll often be a hurt, unseen to the outside world but there all the same which brings an unspoken understanding amongst those that know and deal with the same 'problems' day in, day out.

A phone call to a farmer last night brought about one of those moments, as when someone is bereaved, words fail, nothing can be said to make things any better. The loss is felt.

An explanation as to why fire engines were in the district - a cow in a cattle grid

A calving heifer (first time calver/young cow) no less, experiencing difficulties, so brought off the herd along with another for company to be driven to the steading with the intention of assisting the birth and having a healthy cow and calf as a result. If only that simple.

A lack of staff on farms makes every task more difficult, the farmer is dealing with an unpredictable cow alone. The gate beside the cattle grid is open but she spooks and for all her pal walks through, she decides to jump the cattle grid. The result? Not a pretty one.

On the bright side the calf was brought into this world alive, a small consolation to a man who cares. There is the financial loss, a heifer worth at least £1,000, vets bills, call out for emergency services?, dead cart to pay, powdered colostrum and calf milk to buy. Painful to the pocket but not what is causing the hurt that is felt.

Those who work the land are a tough hardy breed, resilient, hard working, committed and conscientious, they will shrug their shoulders and say 'that's life' but remember - they care.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Back to the grind

After the 'holiday' in Scotland Shep and the better half had some catching up to do.

August, September and October sees the season for sheep sales which for Shep means a lot of sheep to gather, dress and draw.

Now I can't bring myself to leave you to work out what that means, it is tempting though..........

Gathering ought to be self explanatory by now, if not go back in these blogs and work it out.

Dressing? A thing we do every morning when we get up - slightly different with sheep, they are not wrapped up in fine trimmings, frocks for the females and suits for the males - I think not! No, dressing sheep is similar to taking the poodle to the parlour or getting your hair cut. Basically they get titivated up to look their best before going into the auction ring to be sold.

Generally only breeding sheep get 'dressed' although it has been known for the real pinickity to square tails up on store lambs to make them look boxier at the back end, mebbes I'll go into that at a later date. Breeding sheep are titivated up, hand shears are a must although the electric shears are also used. Care has to be taken, snipping off a little at a time as once it's off it can't be put back on. There is a saying that a good sheep doesn't need to be dressed and there is a lot of truth in this, however, you just can't help but try to make a good sheep look even better.

There are all sorts of tricks to the trade all intended to make the sheep look bigger, stronger, brighter and all together more pleasing to the eye. Many are bloom dipped, that's why you often see sheep with yellow wool, or brown, golden, biscuit, black - whatever the farmers personal preference in bloom may be. Sheep that thrive well often have a natural bloom about them, similar to the colour of those that have been in a sandy rubbing. Bloom dipping just exaggerates this natural colour.

Drawing? not a pencil and paper in sight, unless to write down the numbers on the back of a fag packet or whatever comes to hand.

No. Drawing means sorting the sheep so that they stand together as a type. You want a similar size and quality of sheep to be sold in each pen that you put forward for sale. It is often said that the buyers bid to the worst lamb in the pen, so you really don't want them to be badly drawn, ideally you'd like the pen to be all like peas in a pod, unfortunately the ideal world hasn't been made yet and every sheep will have it's imperfections. Basically size and type get drawn together, stand back and look and anything you find that isn't pleasing to the eye gets dropped down into the next pen and so on until you are content with what you have - simple!

And so, Shep has been busy. Dressing Mule Ewe Lambs, Mule Gimmers, Blackfaced Ewe Lambs, Gimmers and Draft Ewes, drawing store lambs and breeding sheep, gathering and I may add still spaening some sheep. The back end of the year is the harvest time for the sheep farmer and a hectic time for the Contract Shepherd as deadlines must be met. The sheep sales wait for no one.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Where does the time go?

Indeed. Where on earth does the time go........... since my last posting time has flown by and we're rapidly heading towards October, seems no time since lambing time....

A fortnight back saw a trip into Scotland for Shep and the better half, a wedding no less. Away up on the Moray Firth - to the seaside - we went. Having never travelled up the East side of Scotland before I have to say I was gob smacked, we may as well have been away down south, what tremendous ground there is up there. Most of the way up on our 8 hour journey ( I'm told it should only have taken 5, I put my hands up to poor navigational skills!) we passed combine after combine, the farmers on the East of Scotland were flat out with the harvest, Claas won the day lower down, however we soon found ourselves in John Deere territory and finally New Hollands stood their ground. I can only presume different dealerships held strong in different areas.

Now the fact that Shep is a shepherd means harvesting began to wear thin after about five hours, there were a lot of beef cattle too but sheep were few and far between, in fact they were down rightly scarce so as navigator it was decided to cut across country south of Aberdeen and head towards our weekend abode through hillier terrain ( this is where a lot of the time was lost I may add). Indeed there was some spectacular scenery but the combines still won the day, albeit older versions of what had been viewed off the main road. I was beginning to despair that Scotland didn't have a national sheep flock.

We arrived at our fisherman's cottage in Portknockie (pleasant place right on the coast) and enjoyed the sea air and scenic walks along the headland. We were re united with the Curlew and Oyster catcher which had departed our land a while back and saw zillions of seagulls, cormorants and other birdy things; also cursed not bringing the binoculars and bird book!!

The wedding was a jolly day, great weather, good food, good company and a happy bride and groom, tearful parents and all the other trimmings that go with a wedding - oh! and alot of kilts!

A day to recover followed during which we did very little other than walk the coast and savour fish and chips - not a sheep in sight! Then back home we came. The better half decided the A9 seemed a more direct route and off we trundled, cutting an hour off the journey.... we may have made it back quicker if Edinburgh hadn't got in our way at rush hour and once again poor navigational skills (personally I'm apt to blame the sign posts, or is it the new road map we'd invested in?).

So are there sheep in Scotland? A few. There were some North Country Cheviots to be seen in sparse numbers and around about Dalwhinnie there were definitely Blackies on the hills. Much of the high hill ground we passed seemed to be away to self seeded trees and was terribly rough looking giving you the impression it was not grazed. The low lying ground was beef cattle and cropping. I can't help but conclude that the potential for sheep farming is not being fully realised, all the better for the Tarset farmers who at the moment are flat out taking their stock to market.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

That sinking feeling returned

I mentioned my new ploy of getting quad bike across wet boggy bits without sinking in the last blog. I was so proud of myself to have sussed that plenty of throttle gave the momentum to cross the uncrossable - my confidence was boosted.

It was short lived.......... Yep! Done it again - Sunk!

Now the spot in question really was a peaty hole, there were two of us heading out to gather and the bike in front had negotiated the obstacle with absolutely no problem, not wishing to appear a wimp and full of confidence from my previous experiences I hit the throttle.......... and...........well................ the front wheels got over.......... unfortunately the back wheels sank to the axle. S**t! Done it again!

I mentioned this bike was heavier, oh yes, no doubt, it is definitely heavier.

It seemed possible that the bike would grip to reverse out of the predicament, however, logic told me that would result in either all four wheels sunk to the axle or at least the front wheels sunk which really meant I'd be no further forward. Attempts at pushing the sodding thing forwards definitely got a sweat on and peaty water lapping over the wellie tops.

I gave in, walked to the hill top and gave a cheery wave - it worked! The other bike returned and problem sorted in no time. I think I need to accept that I am to retain my reputation for being able to find a boggy hole and sink into it!!!

So how did the other bike notice my predicament, well obviously my reputation goes before me but also when you're gathering, especially big areas such as we were on, you not only keep an eye on the sheep and dogs but also the other person gathering too. We both go to different bits of the hill to set the sheep away in and arrive at the same point (hopefully), but some of my sheep may head in the direction of the other bike and vice versa, neither of you wants to get ahead of the other as that would be a hindrance and may well cause sheep to head in the wrong direction, or you may miss sheep coming in behind you and also accidents can happen, you look out for each other. Thankfully my absence had been noted and my predicament was rectified - with a lot of leg pulling in the bargain!

Friday, 11 September 2009

that sinking feeling

Ever had that sinking feeling? Shep had a sinking feeling on numerous occasions whilst out - bye gathering last week. The hill ground was saturated. Being peat it is naturally boggy anyhow, with all the wet weather we have suffered recently it has naturally got boggier.

Now you lot won't know this but Shep isn't the bravest of souls on a quad bike and it is a standing joke that if I can find a wet hole to sink into then I will - almost guaranteed. So when the hill ground is basically just one great big wet hole it doesn't bode well for good ol' Shep.

I had a fresh bike to use, a bigger version of the last one. Bigger in size (I felt like a pea on a pod), bigger engine and bigger in weight.................... Ugh, I set off to the hill with my heart sinking to the bottom of my boots, memories of the week previous when I managed to have a quad on another farm floating (yes, that's what I said - floating!), were fresh in my mind.

Obviously on that occasion I wasn't able to sink and get bogged. I gauged the depth of water wrong and did quite honestly begin to float - exceptional, even by my standards! I had the presence of mind to remember to keep the throttle on full to prevent water running into the exhaust as I jumped off to push the offending article in the direction of dry land. My wellies filled so quickly I barely had time to gasp, the bike was rescued, wellies taken off, water tipped out, socks taken off and rung out and I set about my way.

With these thoughts trundling about my head I almost had a bet with myself, ' how long 'til, you're bogged then?' Would I be able to get un - bogged? This bike is heavier and being bigger there was more of it to sink......... Oh, heavens above, give me a pony any day (except I did once bog one of them too - that's another story!)

Usually when I come to a drain, burn, crossing point, boggy hole or what ever I pause, weigh up the pros and cons and progress with caution, if you travel cautiously you sink slower, giving you time to hit reverse and mebbes get out of the predicament - very rarely works but there you go, that has always been my logic.

I had a fresh approach last week and to my surprise seemed to get away with it. If in doubt hit the throttle and go for it................ The logic being, if I went fast enough by the time the bike decided to sink it would be past the obstacle anyway! And hey! It worked!

I didn't have to wring my socks out - yipee! Unfortunately I did have a very wet arse (bottom to those of you that speak properly). I've mentioned earlier in the year about my summer leggings, they were the none waterproof variety, y'know, the ones with a big tear in the knee. Anyhow, I had to give in and get out the lambing leggings which I had been saving for inclement weather. Washed and put away after lambing time they looked as good as new. Now they say looks aren't everything - too true!

These waterproofs seemingly are no longer waterproof, they just look good - huh! What a way to find out, away out - bye in a monsoon! It became apparent in no time at all that the water running off the top coat was sitting in a puddle between my legs as I sat astride the bike, then soaking through the 'waterproof' trousers and very kindly soaking me. On arriving at the sheep pens two hours later, I dismounted and found myself to be walking like John Wayne. Soaked through to the knicker leg didn't have a look in. Before you ask, NO, I didn't take everything off and ring them out, I nonchalantly wandered around all day in an uncomfortable fashion!

Monday, 7 September 2009


What on earth does Spaening mean? Weaning - quite simple really if you know. Apparently in Donegal it is called 'snedding' and who knows what it may be called elsewhere. Here in the Borders we call it spaening. Taking the lambs off their mothers.

Out on the hill replacement ewe lambs need to be kept as the ewes are drafted off the hill at 5 or 6 years old and a fresh age of sheep is needed to take their place. Every year a set amount of keeping (replacement) ewe lambs are chosen off each cut (heft) and returned back to the hill with their mothers.

At this stage they become Ewe Hoggs, no longer ewe lambs, they have matured overnight to become hoggs.

The number of ewe hoggs retained on each cut of the hill depends on the number of ewes which runs out there but is usually around about a fifth of that number, therefore, if you have 100 ewes you'd keep 20 ewe hoggs and hope to draft off 20 old ewes (draft ewes), mind that is wishful thinking, expecting to draft off the number that were originally kept 5 or 6 years ago, think I've told you before - sheep like to die. There's also the bad doers - ones that don't thrive right for what ever reason - they often get drafted out earlier in their lives and sold whilst they're worth a penny or two, rather than waiting for the inevitable and having them die and you having the cost of paying the dead cart to shift them.

Now you might think my mathematics is a tad naff and believe you me it is not a strong point of mine. If you have 100 ewes and sell 20 that leaves 80 (well done Shep), then you add 20 hoggs but a hogg isn't an adult sheep so how do you get back up to 100? Ah ha! Good question.

Last years hoggs got clipped in the early summer (read the hogg clipping article), they then became gimmers - again, maturing overnight (very clever!). A gimmer will go to the tup for the first time this back end, as an adult sheep. Therefore, your 20 clipped hoggs (gimmers) make up the deficit in the ewe count - does that make sense? Sorry if it doesn't but I know what I mean!!

Anyhow, like I said the ewe hoggs get kept, the best of the bunch get chosen to remain on the hill and be the future of the breeding flock. They are set back out to the hill with their mothers who will spaen (wean) her lambs naturally.

The ewe hoggs learn how to live out on the hill and where their rakes on the hill are off their mothers. They are hefted sheep and have learnt over generations where to graze and where they belong. A problem which was encountered after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak as farms were devoid of livestock and shepherds had to use all their knowledge and hours, days, months, years of hard work to re - heft sheep out on the hill ground, sheep that had been bought in from other farms and knew nothing about where they had come to live and the unseen boundaries they were not meant to cross.

The remaining lamb crop is spaened, some are sold direct off their mothers, others are kept to be fattened or sold at breeding or store sales. The lambs are generally put onto the fogs - yikes! What's a FOG?

A fog (or foggage) is the fresh growth in the hay fields. Once the hay fields have been harvested they are shut down and the fresh grass is allowed to grow to feed the lambs through the back end. Spaening in Tarset is behind schedule as some farmers struggled to get their hay and silage crops (in fact there are still some fields to get) and so the fogs haven't grown and there has been nothing to spaen lambs onto. The traditional time for spaening hill lambs around here was the week between Falstone and Bellingham Show, the last week in August. Here we are into September and there are some spaened and some not, many trying to sell direct off the ewes as hungry mouths can soon strip poor fogs bare.