The Year of the Sheep

Sheep are having a bit of a moment in case you hadn’t noticed. This week sees the release of ‘Shaun the Sheep’ from the Wallace & Gromit stable and on 19th February, the Chinese New Year of the Sheep will begin.  My own ovine connections began a year ago when I became a community shepherd for the National Trust and, once a week,  I set forth through the mud to find and count a herd of Wiltshire Horn sheep that have been brought in as part of a conservation grazing initiative on Stockbridge Down.

The flock of 28 arrived in November 2013 and consists of 27 ewes and a wether known as Walter who is fond of leading groups of ladies into forbidden territories. Apart from a few dramas involving fallen trees, legs becoming stuck in branches and various escapes the project has been largely successful. I know many of the sheep by character and I think they know me too. (In a recent study, sheep were found to be able to remember 50 sheep faces as well as familiar human ones). The sheep have chomped through the dominant grass allowing for a much wider plant diversity. In order to count them, the shepherds have to lure the flock into the corral by shaking a bucket of nuts. There’s no need to use the ancient shepherd’s vocabulary which mixes Latin with pre-Roman British – a few loud calls will usually suffice. The schoolgirl error is leaving the box open whereupon the shepherd is pushed and shoved while ten greedy heads delve in. As soon as you pull one set of horns out, another goes in and it’s a bit like losing control at a children’s party except these guests weigh 70kg each and have horns.

The Wiltshire Horn is an attractive, hardy and self sufficient breed.  It is particularly popular with smallholders due  to its ability to shed its own winter fleece –  they  look very comical with their fleeces half on and half off.  In the winter their white wool turns a dirty dishcloth grey which they accessorise with dirty noses.  Similar schemes are running at Reigate Hill in Surrey and at Plantlife’s Ranscome Farm and it’s not just rural areas.  Urban shepherds have been tending a flock of Herdwick sheep since 2009 on the downs outside Brighton where they are employed as environmentally friendly mowing machines and where there is a permanent waiting list for shepherds.

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