Peak District Hill Farming
PUBLISHED: 11:16 20 December 2010 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013
Kath Birkinshaw has been up since early morning, wading through mile upon mile of heather, bracken and bilberry to gather sheep in from the surrounding moors and bring them down for weaning. It has been a five-hour muster for the shepherdess, who ...
Kath Birkinshaw has been up since early morning, wading through mile upon mile of heather, bracken and bilberry to gather sheep in from the surrounding moors and bring them down for weaning. It has been a five-hour muster for the shepherdess, who works in partnership with her sister, Andrea Jolley, to run a National Trust hill farm in the Upper Derwent Valley.
She couldn't have chosen a harder life but the compensations are all around in a landscape laid out below her like a map. You can't go any higher up the steep, rutted track than Ashes Farm, and Kath's renovated cottage is perched right at the top of the dale with almost every significant peak visible from her windows. It's a panorama of which she never tires and which her ever-present camera captures in every mood of what she describes as 'six-month summers and six-month winters'.
She was born further down the hill, at the Shooting Lodge, and her grandfather's farm was next door to where she lives now. He used to pack his grandchildren into the Land Rover and use them as miniature shepherds, especially at lambing time. Once they'd got to an age when they could run quite fast, Kath remembers him 'setting us off with one ewe to walk down and giving us two as we got more confident.'
That's how she learned to handle sheep, which she describes affectionately as 'quite wily. They're real survivors and they're crafty and you have to know how to deal with them. But they're really instinctive creatures. You have to know how to relax them, how to put them at their ease, gently but firmly. They can't tell you how they feel. You have to let the sheep know what you want them to do by the way you move.' Sheep are honest animals, she reflects, though 'there's always a nuisance one somewhere that was reared on the bottle. It doesn't respond properly to the dog and it's always the last into the sheep pen ...'
The fact that all this is in her blood doesn't make the life she has chosen any easier. Traditional hill farmers are a dying breed and this is a unique and unpredictable way of making a living, only sustainable here in the Peak by the sisters contracting out shepherding skills to other farmers and by the profits of their dry stone walling business. Few women do what they do. They won the national David Arnold Foster Hill Farming Award last year for being 'exemplars of best practice, demonstrating energy, passion and true grit in some of the most challenging of circumstances.'
The citation read, 'Their hill farm is run on a low input, low output basis employing traditional methods in farming and maintaining moorland fringe hay meadows. They were also praised for being heavily involved in the community and educating the general public with regards to sustainable hill farming and the rural land based economy.'
Today's big round-up brought in 500 sheep from over 3,000 acres of very dense vegetation. Kath is tall and long-legged but it can be like wading through a jungle, and if you can find a sheep track, you're lucky, she says with her ready laugh. We are at the very end of August: sheep have earlier been gathered for summer shearing and the next big round-up will be in November when the ewes are put to the tup, ready for the main lambing in April.
Now, weaning time, is when sheep bring in income at the autumn sales. But the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey and the consequent restrictions on movement have meant that with no sheep able to be taken to market, farmers have only been able to agree with a buyer on what price is to be paid. It's just one more blow in an already precarious situation.
But Kath wouldn't give it up for the world. 'It's a way of life, going out there and working with animals and sheepdogs. The weather can be against you a lot of the time but I just love the countryside and this farm,' she says simply. 'I couldn't sit in an office all day.' The sheepdogs, border collies, look the most knowing in the world, heads cocked to one side in quizzical response to the camera, inscrutably weighing up every situation. Kath's opportunistic photographs of them are the stuff of caption competitions and she acknowledges, 'They're such stars, natural comics and very enthusiastic.'
The sheep come off the hay meadows in the middle of May, when the wild flowers begin to grow. These traditionally managed meadows are a rich asset to the wildlife, culture and landscape of the Peak and at Ashes Farm are never mown until after 16th July when the seeds have got shaken into the ground to come up the following year. Haymaking looks impossible in steep fields made for horses, not for tractors, and bales have to be the traditional blocks rather than the round bales which could bounce away down to the reservoir.
Family and friends turn up in droves to help with the haymaking: a picture suggestive of a rural idyll that is very far from the reality. 'It's hard work because it has to be hot and it has to be dry. You're covered in sweat, it's running into your eyes, and then when you actually make the hay and throw it on to the trailer, you're covered in dust and your whole body itches,' Kath says with feeling. 'You need enough sun beforehand to dry the ground out and then you have to go at it like crazy to get it mown. There's only so many hours of daylight and the tractor might roll away at any moment.'
But the results are safely stowed in the barn, warm, mysterious and sweet-smelling. Kath takes a handful of soft hay full of plantain and clover and rubs it between her fingers, releasing more of the rich fragrance. 'The greener it is, the faster it's been made ... If you get a poorly sheep who's looking really miserable and you bring her inside here and put some of this right in front of her, suddenly her nose starts twitching and the hay smells so appetising that she'll want to eat it. She loves it.'
We walk the fields in the exhilaration of wind and sunshine. Swallows dip and fly around the sheep, who disturb the flies for them to catch. Wagtails settle around the calves in the flatter meadows by the water, where sandpipers too live on the water margins. Kath has had some breath-catching moments in these fields - watching entranced, for instance, a swallow flying with a feather in its mouth to line a nest, panicking on sight of her and dropping the feather before swooping round to catch it deftly in mid-air and carry it off in triumph. 'It's the best time of year when the swallows and wagtails come back,' she says with pure pleasure.
Not so welcome on these water margins are the Canada geese, whom the local farmers thought quite nice when there were only eight of them. Now there are 800. Without natural predators, they thrive, trampling and messing the grass where another hay meadow might have been created. Moles are not welcome either: wherever they disturb the ground, weeds such as nettles will claim the space. Andrea is the mole-catcher: it's an art, says Kath with respect. Rabbits are kept away from hay fermenting for silage, for just one nibble of the tough plastic wrapping will allow air inside and turn a whole bale rotten.
Beautifully rebuilt dry stone walls are testament to the sisters' expertise. 'It's very technical, the angle you build it at and the size of the stones. You've got to work so gravity pulls it in all the time,' Kath says, satisfied that there's not a chink of daylight visible in the curved wall in front of us and that it's strong enough to withstand cows as well as preventing sheep from jumping over it. 'You do it just by eye; you can't do it any other way.'
The old packhorse route from Manchester crosses the farmland close by an ancient stone barn and has become a newly flagged bridleway that will not suffer any further erosion from mountain bikes. Walkers and cyclists are generally respectful of the land in this valley, though a round-up on Crowden Hill the previous day has identified one sheep with a broken leg and another with a torn mouth after being worried by a dog - the despair of farmers like Kath. It's all about education, she suggests. She smiles, though, at the perception of a shepherdess that is usually gleaned from nursery rhymes: 'Younger people seeing me with sheep always ask if I'm taking them to market.'
The sisters' farmland goes right up to the edge of the moor, bright purple with springy heather that in Kath's opinion, has never looked better. Three fields on the lower slopes are known by their ancient names - 'onedeewark, twodeewark and threedeewark', indicating how many days each took one man and his horse to plough, and here there are pockets of tranquillity in a landscape punctuated by trees that were once hedgerows. Four shoots of a sycamore have grown almost as four trees, a line so straight and a shape so perfect that it features on many of Kath's photographs of dramatic landscapes, sweeping clouds and wide expanses of moorland.
She knows every member of this dispersed community of the Derwent Valley, is an ambassador for the Peak District and for hill farming and speaks professionally to groups via a stunning slide presentation on a Year in the Life of a Shepherdess. 'Hill farming is still traditional, it's the way it's been done for generations,' she concludes.
'It's non-stop. You go out day after day lambing sheep and then suddenly realise that while you've had your head down, spring has crept up on you and everything's green. You think, "When did that happen?"'