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an image of a cup with a field in the background an image of a cup with a field in the background

hello from chatto

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friday, 6th november 2020

artist meets shepherd

Early in the morning, I crossed the border between England and Scotland, a border marked by a small row of parking spaces and a couple of flags. On either side of the road the land dipped into valleys, which were stuffed full of heavy fog.

Cross the Scottish border. Take the first “real” right hand turn. Drive straight through the wonky crossroads. Etc. Helen's point-by-point directions were flawless – they were those of someone who doesn’t use a SatNav to get around. As I don’t either, I find the house easily and arrive early.

A photograph of a clear sky and a valley below with dense fog sitting in it

She boils the kettle. So, tell me, why did you start farming?

It seems like a simple question

Helen is strikingly intelligent, and paints an image of pragmatism. She has a short crew cut and a farmer’s practical clothes (body warmer, waterproof leggings, wellies). When she was young she did well in school. Her mother wanted her to go to university. Her teachers wanted her to sit her A-levels. She wanted to be a shepherd. Having met her, even briefly, I doubt anyone could persuade her to do anything she was not interested in doing.

She learned by doing, spending time with farmers and gradually developing her trade. This might suggest a type of unrefined, experiential knowledge, but when I get to questions about disease Helen quickly bounces into conversations naming the latest antibiotics and treatments, as well as outlining the reasons for some diseases and their spread.

She occasionally muses on what she sees as the folly of human beings, believing they are the centre of everything: “The pandemic this year just shows us how much we take for granted in nature…we are such a small part of a much bigger thing”.

Candid, direct and open, Helen continues without prompts, except my occasional steering back to the subject of disease. “Foot and mouth was the worst event of my life…I’ve lost both of my parents. I broke my back. But foot and mouth…”

That was too much. Reverse please. You broke your back? “Yeah.” How? She smiles at her own memory of foolishness. She rolled a quad bike over six years previously and left herself crushed underneath it. “The doctors say it was impossible. I was lying under it for hours, and it was getting cold. Nobody came by. The schoolbus passed but didn’t see me. Then somehow I walked back to the house, and managed to call an ambulance. It’s amazing what the body is capable of.”

A photograph of a group of sheep looking to the right of the camera, standing in the corner of a field demarcated by a stone wall

Amazing, yes. Much of Helen’s conversation runs like this. In her drifting conversation, she often talks of the nature in the area: "The books say red kite only eats carrion, but I have seen them catch live rabbits and lift them into the air". As a shepherd, nearly always outdoors, she sees life around her all the time doing things you wouldn’t predict or expect.

All this, and we haven’t even gotten to the sheep.

love the animals

“I love the animals. Maybe a little too much,” Helen tells me with a smile and a short look out the window. The farm is completely organic, insisted upon by the owner. She has been hired to work here, having more than 20 years of experience working as a farm hand for hire in Northumberland previously. She misses her Tarset homeland dearly, but is also very grateful of this secure work.

She has a fairly direct distaste of machinery and technology on a farm, although she also sees its value in some places. Still, she is not a luddite and can see how video calling has been a form of salvation for neighbours with children in foreign countries during the 2020 pandemic. She worries that no new generation of farmers will work in the "old ways". I wonder in my head which old ways she might mean, or how old, then she tells me as if I asked the question aloud: “The best machine I could have is a pony. But I couldn’t do it now.” She learned to harness and use animals first, and couldn’t drive a tractor on her first jobs. Even now she is wary of the quad bikes (understandably) but needs one to get around the 650 sheep she cares for.

difficulty in walking

We talk about lameness. Lameness is not tolerated on the farm. The animals are culled if they cannot be treated, because Helen and the owner feel they shouldn’t suffer. They also see this as a way to strengthen the herd, removing the more vulnerable from breeding.

At the time of my visit, one of the animals she loves too much has a limp – it came off the hills with a strange movement at the shoulder. It can still put weight on its hoof, but moves gingerly sometimes. “We should put her down really, but she doesn’t seem to be in pain. And who knows, if she makes it through the winter…I’m going soft…”

She has tried different treatments for diseases like footrot. Formaldehyde is not an option on their farm, because of the discomfort it causes the animals. Alternatives include copper-based treatments, which reminds me of an unsubstantiated article I read about how brass instrument musicians rarely got Spanish flu during World War I. I mention this. She likes the story, even if it might be false. Her most recent attempt is with mistral powder. The results look good but long-term effects remain to be seen.

some words i don't know

The acreage is massive for 650 sheep, but they need this much space to be happy, Helen believes. They are split into three “cuts” (local dialect for the more common word “hefts”, or in layperson terms groups of sheep). The cuts band together themselves, and proudly form groups that have (semi-)predictable patterns of movement across the hills.

a photograph of a farmer petting one of her sheep

She won’t drive her quad bike anywhere except on the paths that it has already made on the mountains, for fear of killing nesting birds or other ground animals. Her respect for, and love of, nature is ever-present in her conversation.

The sheep are curious at Helen’s second visit of the day. Before I arrived she had already been out, topping up a feed that is rich in cobalt (something that is lacking in the diets in those hills). She also moves the cuts around, because if they stay in one place too long they are liable to get dampness in the feet and, as a result, footrot.

A couple of other phrases appear. A smeut-hole is a small hole for sheep to get in and out of a walled area, that is too small for bulls or cows to escape (which immediately reminds me of the brilliant word “smeuse”). She says that dialects can be problematic. A nearby hill with a pointed peak is a "nube" in Northumbrian (the dialect of Northumberland). When she first moved to Scotland she needed some “hogging”, which nobody understood to mean “stones to fill a waterlogged part of the field”. She laughs – “They said, Oh! You want stones?!”

The language of the farm is almost as specific as the language of disease. I try to keep up.

A photograph of a flock of sheep standing along a hillside, behind an old stone wall

Another major disease problem locally is scab. The farmers came together because it was spreading through the farms a few years ago. Now they have a local treatment plan, with injections every year for the animals. While it has never been a problem on this farm, scab can spread rapidly through wool in the air, so is difficult to manage particularly if it appears on nearby farms.

The animals are well cared for and healthy. She brings treats for them, and talks to them individually. She is very proud of her prize-winner black cheviot, a beautiful ewe with a soft coat that really does stand out from the group, to my untrained (human) eye. But her favourite is a boggle-eyed black cheviot that comes to greet us at another field. That one belongs to her. The tame black ewe leads the rest of the pack over to us.

learning about vulnerability and care

In the same field I am introduced to the limping ewe mentioned earlier, who is shier than the others because she has been on the hills for longer. Lingering at the back of the pack, she hobbles, then walks, then hobbles. I ask if her surviving winter might make her a candidate for a stronger sheep. Helen says yes. I suggest this story is a little like her own, living here alone, having survived a broken back. She contemplates this for a minute and doesn’t answer, but looks satisfied with the comparison. “I’m going soft,” she repeats quietly, apparently referring to the limping ewe again.

We finish back at the farm. We have another cup of tea, sitting in her back garden, looking out at her seven or eight bird feeders. She has a pang of regret at feeding them, saying that a sparrowhalk will soon swoop down and eat one of them. But she doesn’t make any move to take down the feeders. She never will.

I take some notes from the journey. Helen watches the birds sleepily, tired it seems from telling her life story to a stranger. A nuthatch appears on one of the feeders. I’m delighted – I haven’t seen one up close before. She is surprised – they are regular in this neighbourhood. And treecreepers, goldfinches, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, the blackbird in the bush and the robin. No wrens have been around since the beast from the east brought a chill a couple of years ago. “Well, they didn’t make it through a tough winter. Something else will have.”

Helen has spent time in New Zealand, and in Uganda, and Tanzania, and Ireland, looking at farming and also adventuring. She has seen different attitudes to animal welfare, and stands by a need to compassionately put down animals rather than let them suffer. This level of pragmatism isn’t always possible in Britain, she says, because of regulations.

She is probably right, but I only half believe her outward pragmatism. Gentle wins. I can see in her elation at the small birds hopping on her feeders that while she tolerates the harshness of nature, she also loves the simple joy of it, what Rachel Carson called a sense of wonder. And it is not only the animals, but the trees, the birds, the flowers.

Helen has shared her passion with me, openly and honestly and without any judgement. I don’t know how to repay that debt. I only hope that whatever I make can at least communicate that love of the life around her, which I hope to emulate.

 

a photograph of a flock of sheep, all on a grassy hillside, looking toward the camera
a close-up image of a sheep a close-up image of a sheep

making contact

neophobia

the more i tried to approach, the further they seemed to run

an image of a field lined with trees
a farmer in a field with her back turned to the camera a farmer in a field with her back turned to the camera

would never have noticed

response

helen's words (things we don't see)

But, y’see, that is why mixing and conversing with different factions of people is important because from small seeds ideas grow – even if they do go wrong!

I am a shepherd and truly appreciate how lucky I am to be able to enjoy all that is around me,

and I enjoyed showing you around as you seemed to appreciate it too. I really do struggle with the people

that just don’t open their eyes and ears, I have had people call to see me and they would never have noticed the nuthatch in the tree,

or the deer in the field, or the six spot burnet moth, red admiral, bumble bee and as for sheep – well, they’re just sheep.

Therefore as said it was a pleasure to take you around.

I’ve always had a yearning to try and get the

general public to understand our way of life

Maybe the project you’ve been working on will help

an image of a farm gate an image of a farm gate

from the university

researchers response

response 1: learning

had not yet learnt to scatter and disperse

dr. amy proctor

newcastle university

centre for rural economy

I was reminded of a walk we did last spring, during the first weeks of the initial lockdown where we wandered along a lane past a field of sheep with new lambs. Whilst most of the sheep in the field moved away from us as we walked past, one of the lambs jumped through the gate and began following us down the lane. It had not yet learnt to scatter and disperse like the others and we eventually had to carry this bold and curious lamb back to the field and its very angry mum.

there’s a sense that sheep become deskilled, maybe less sheep-like, in some farming systems

prof. lewis holloway

university of hull

professor of human geography

Helen is happy to decentre humans, seeing them as but one component of the sets of relationships making up the world; and with her sheep it seems too that people and animals make each other.

There’s a sense that sheep become deskilled, maybe less sheep-like, in some farming systems, while when they are farmed on the hill, when they are hefted, their capacities and competencies are instead drawn out.

Armstrong P (2018) Sheep-shaped. In Bull J, Holmberg T and Åsberg C (eds.) Animal Places: Lively Cartographies of Human-Animal Relations. London, Routledge (pp.17-32)

an animated gif of a sheep walking across the screen from left to rightan animated gif of a sheep walking across the screen from left to right

response 2: care

come on bonny lads

dr. amy proctor

newcastle university

centre for rural economy

In my various visits to farms for research over the years, one sticks in my mind of a meeting with a shepherdess like the one here. She too, worked as a contractor and had an obvious respect and love for the sheep. She would talk affectionately to them “come on bonny lads” and had names for some of her favourites “Mr Angry” and “Ginger”. A story she told me sticks in my mind of a very bad winter where she found a tup frozen to the ground. She had snapped it free and brought it into the kitchen and put a Barbour jacket on it to get it warmed up. The image is a funny one, but underpinning it is her genuine affection for the animals, something which also comes through strongly in Helen’s account.

both the flock and the individual emerge as important considerations

prof. lewis holloway

university of hull

professor of human geography

there is a paradoxical tension between her love for her sheep and their instrumental value...

This tension translates into comments on Helen’s own ethics – she is ‘going soft’ in her treatment of animals; perhaps having suffered serious injury herself she is empathetic towards the suffering of lame sheep. But this too is in tension with another ethic, the principle of culling lame sheep to prevent suffering. Yet this culling itself has at least two moral forces; it is expressed as both a biopolitics of strengthening the flock by culling animals susceptible to lameness, and in moral terms of needing to respond to and prevent individual suffering...

...both the flock and the individual emerge as important considerations

a looped gif showing a photographic image of a farmer in black and white petting three sheep that are standing in front of her. She is standing straight near the centre of the image, and the three sheep are to the left. Behind her is a fourth sheep.

response 3: place

‘vernacular expertise’ derived from interactions with people and place

dr. amy proctor

newcastle university

centre for rural economy

I have explored the significance of the experiential and experimental knowledge famers and their advisors develop ‘by doing’. They actively assess and broker a range of different types of knowledge (professional, scientific, regulatory) as well as generate knowledge themselves ‘on-the-job’.

Acknowledging the value and validity of this ‘vernacular expertise’ , that is the expertise which people have and develop that is place-based but crucially nourished by outside sources and agents, has become a key focus in my work.

Lowe P, Phillipson J, Proctor A, Gkartzios M. Expertise in Rural Development: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis. World Development 2019, 116, 28-37.

farming is deeply topographical

prof. lewis holloway

university of hull

professor of human geography

I wondered about the extent to which Helen’s relationships with sheep are possible in modern farming practices...

It reminds that this farming is deeply topographical, it’s embedded in the specific qualities of particular places, not least through hefting.

a moving, abstract animated image of a landscape that only shows a small unidentifiable square at any given second. The colours are earthy and strong. The movement is erratic. A square forest of trees is visible at one point, as is a farm house, but again both are abstracted. same as previous, only mirrored. a moving, abstract animated image of a landscape that only shows a small unidentifiable square at any given second. The colours are earthy and strong. The movement is erratic. A square forest of trees is visible at one point, as is a farm house, but again both are abstracted.