Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Gathering

Mid July and ours is the last farm to gather its sheep off the mountain. The sheep have been enjoying the mountain grass for the last couple of months, since the moment our farmer thought the weather was OK to send them up. But now it’s time to come down for shearing.

We meet outside the farm at 5:00 a.m. The plan is to get up and down before it gets too hot. One by one the gang assembles. It’s a mixture of young and not-so-young, family, other farmers, and me the neighbour. They’ve done this many times over the last three weeks, taking it in turns to help each other, but for me it’s full of fresh excitement.
Just above the mountain wall
The gathering gang seems a bit subdued. One of the older men has stretched himself out on a sack of wool and seems to be asleep. There’s a lot of muttering and cursing about the weather. It’s fine where we are, but clouds are covering the top of the mountain.

Most farm jobs carry on whatever the weather, but cloud on the mountain is a no-no for gathering the sheep. Fluffy grey sheep blend in perfectly with the clouds, making them impossible to see at any distance. You can’t see your colleagues as you sweep the mountain from different directions. You can’t see the dogs to guide and control them. Apart from these complications there is also the safety hazard: there are many cliffs waiting to catch you out.

From where we are by the river, we are right up against the foot of the mountain and can only see the first ridge. Dafydd phones his wife, who has a good view from her kitchen: 'Yes, you can see it now. Hold on. No, it’s gone again. I think it’ll clear soon. ...' Geraint gets into his van and listens to the weather forecast. It’s too general, whilst what’s happening on our mountain right now is a bit too specific. The farmer takes off in his Land Rover and watches from the other side of the valley as we kick our heels in the farmyard. There’s only so much small talk welcome this early. 

 The dogs are getting restless and are let out to stretch their legs. What a canine social event this is. So many tyres from so many farms to be sniffed and cock a leg against. There’s a lot of competition and status amongst the assembled pack, and some need reminding who’s top dog.

At ten o’clock, the farmer comes back from yet another recce. 'Amser paned' … let’s get a cup of tea. Ten of us squeeze into the farmhouse and are made very welcome. Tea, sausage rolls, bread and cake … great, feel fit to tackle a mountain now.

It’s decided that now is the time to go. I climb into the back of a 4x4x4 where the last 4 indicates the number of sheepdogs I have for company. Three of us and the four dogs are taken to the west, whilst the larger group of seven with eleven dogs are dropped off to the east of the mountain.

We climb part-way up a ridge before splitting up. I’m to make my way to the point where the wall comes down from the mountain and ignore the blue-marked sheep – they’ve crossed over the top of the mountain from another farm. I can hear the dogs being worked above me but otherwise it’s peace and quiet. Not many sheep here, just a few wild goats watching on.

I make it to the wall, driving just a couple of sheep ahead. The man above is now in position with his dogs and shouts down. It’s going to be a long wait, as the cloud has come down again whilst the farmer is out of sight scouring the top. Eventually the cloud lifts and we’re on the move again. Sheep that were in twos or threes are now in tens or more, moving cautiously downwards and towards the centre of the mountain.

The rounded mountain in the background is Manod where
the contents of the National Gallery were hidden in WWII
Gathering is never an exact science nor a complete sweep, there’s always one or more that gets away. A shaggy one with the front of her coat hanging down stands defiant in front of two dogs. She stamps her feet and snorts at them, before dashing recklessly diagonally down the mountain in the wrong direction. The dogs follow as the sheep rebounds off a stone wall and carries on relentless. This sheep is too determined and gets left behind; so much for the parable of the lost sheep.

By now the sun has burnt through the early morning clouds and is beating down with a vengeance. The lower we get the hotter we get. Sheep, dogs and shepherds are converging downwards from all directions. Just below me a sheep is trying to hide in the undergrowth, too exhausted to go any further. One of the men carries her on his shoulders - hardly a ‘piggy-back’!

As we descend we move from the cliffs, through boulder fields into the heather belt, the bogs and thence into the bracken. If the sheep kept silent and still, thousands could hide away beneath this tall green camouflage. It’s an exhausting job for dogs to break through the forest of bracken.

Having undergone all kinds of natural hazards, we are just about to cross the Ffestiniog Railway line when an unscheduled train comes past. A couple of minutes later and there would have been either an emergency stop or a few lamb chops.

More or less back at the farm and the dogs take a muddy bath and a few mouthfuls of brackish water. Their work is almost done, whereas the shepherds have many hours of shearing ahead of them.

What sort of future lies ahead for this type of farming? 

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