Farming horrors left us feeling sheepish
Published at 09:11, Monday, 30 April 2012
“WHAT ever did farmers do before quad bikes were invented?” mused Mrs Hextol the other day.
We were out for a stroll, and the fields were full of stotting lambs and their blaring mothers.
Where once there would be a lone shepherd and his collie patiently plodding around the fields, there were two farming types, both roaring round on big red quads, with their collies perched on the back of the bikes.
Doubtless it is much quicker and less exhausting to do the rounds at lambing time aboard a Honda, but it did take me back to the days in the early 1960s when I was little, and we used to “help out” on an uncle’s farm in Cumberland.
We were never there at lambing time, but did spend many summers on the high moor lands, “gathering the fell.”
To the uninitiated, that meant rounding up all my uncle’s sheep to be clipped and marked – a mammoth task.
The only mode of transport to get to the fell was a trailer attached to the back of his little grey Fergie tractor, and it was a point of honour between my brother and me not to hold on to the sides as we bounced and bucked our way over the rock strewn track that headed for the hills.
You had to absorb the bounces with flexed knees only, with arms folded. It’s a technique which has served me well over the years, especially when travelling in those elongated coaches which take you to your aircraft in foreign airports.
Once the tractor had wheezed its way as far as it could, it was on to shanks’s pony, to walk to the Far Wall, which demarked the boundary of my uncle’s farm.
Then we had to form up in a foraging line, and walk back the way we had come, herding all the sheep in front of us.
This was all very well in theory, but of course the sheep knew every fold and valley in the fell a million times better than a bunch of children from a Cheshire council estate.
You would see a bunch of about a dozen or so in the middle distance, which would look at the line of hooting and hollering urchins with mild interest before sauntering down off the skyline.
They had vanished by the time we had reached their location, and we would spend a baffled few minutes combing the heather for them – only to see them nonchalantly cropping the heather at the exact spot where we had been standing earlier.
If we ran at them, in a bid to stir them into a gallop, it went without saying that one of us would disappear into three feet of noisome liquid peat, and require rescuing by the others.
Just as we were starting to despair, a collie would appear from nowhere, and sheep would erupt from the heather all round us and trot obediently downhill, realising the game was up for another year.
The game was up in more ways than one, for frequently there were heart-stopping moments during the day when the moor would explode with rocketing bodies, as the local red grouse population left it to the very last second to leave their heathery hideaways.
Finally, after many hours, the fell would be deemed gathered, even though everyone knew there were a few wise old yows sniggering sardonically from the depths of a peat hag at having avoided capture for another year.
For some, the excitement was all too much, and they simply laid down at the side of the track and expired, for no reason at all.
Once down in the farm yard, the sheep could be given the once over, and we children would watch with gleeful horror at some of the ravages which had been endured on the moors over the winter.
Some unfortunate creatures had been fly blown, their scrawny bodies a mass of maggots which would cascade writhing on to the floor following the judicious application of neat disinfectant.
But the most memorable and horrific moment one year was the fate of a magnificent “curly tip” as blackface tups were known in Cumberland.
One of its mighty horns has curled in so far it had come into contact with the animal’s eye, and poked it completely out of its socket.
The other was threatening to do the same, but a few swift strokes of the saw meant that eye was saved – but an indentation under the eye showed how close it had been.
Published by http://www.hexhamcourant.co.uk