‘Come by! Come by!’ Meg responds to the call, nipping around the back of an unruly flock of black Hebridean sheep. Gradually, via a series of ‘come by’, ‘away’ and ‘walk in’ commands, she corrals them skillfully towards us. Job done, the two-year-old Border collie is rewarded with a bit of fussing. The woman stroking her is Louise Amos, who just happens to be the only close shepherd the length and breadth of the country. Furthermore, it’s her five dogs and 90 sheep in a corner of East Sussex that could well spark a revolution in how we manage the countryside in Britain.
For those not acquainted with the term, ‘close shepherding’ requires someone to stay with a free-ranging flock all day, in contrast to the modern method of keeping sheep in enclosed areas and merely checking up on them from time to time.
‘You couldn’t do that here,’ says Louise, the 6,500 acres of the Ashdown Forest spreading out around her, ‘because you’d need to put up miles of fencing.’ And in the largest free public access space in the south-east, that’s simply not going to happen. The problem facing the Ashdown Forest – and so many other parts of Britain – is that synthetic nutrients from polluted rainwater have meant that many non-heathland plants and grasses have flourished, thus displacing the heather. No-one wants to resort to the mass use of pesticides to kill off invasive plant life, so the solution may well be found in conservation grazing overseen by traditional shepherds.
Since close shepherding died a death in Britain in the middle of the last century, Louise is faced with single handedly resurrecting the practice. Which begs the question, how does one end up becoming a shepherd nowadays? After all, it’s not the dream job of every child gazing idly out of the classroom window during geography. Apparently, it helps to be brought up around Border collies.
‘I’ve probably been raised as a Border collie myself,’ Louise jokes, explaining that her mother bred the dogs in the Leicestershire village where she grew up. ‘Then she rented some fields and began keeping sheep as a hobby – to give the dogs something to do.’
A fondness for sheepdogs is not enough, however, and it soon becomes evident that shepherding is a much more scientific pursuit than might be imagined. Happily, Louise has a degree in ecology, which she followed up with two years at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, ‘looking at the effects of grazing on heathland’ and publishing a joint paper on ‘the below-ground interactions between Calluna vulgaris and Nardus stricta’. Appropriately enough, it’s her sheep that are now sorting out the above ground interactions between these two plants, more commonly known as heather and matt grass, the short, spiky plant that gives a silvery sheen to large tracts of moor and downland. Unlike many other breeds, Hebrideans are quite content to stuff themselves with the silica-rich matt grass, thus allowing the heather to flourish again.
The road that led Louise to Sussex took a rather unorthodox route, however. It included a stint in Argentina counting guanaco (‘they’re a bit like llamas’) and two years in the Falkland Islands, where she began a PhD examining a project to restore eroded areas of heathland. After a falling-out with her supervisors she headed back to Britain, where an MSc in computing led her to a job with English Nature, where she settled down to a life of deskbound data-crunching. Until, that is, the day last year when she came across an advert placed by the Conservators of Ashdown Forest, the body responsible for overseeing the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), for a Close herded Shepherding Project Officer – a grand-sounding title for a shepherd.
Wanted: one shepherd
‘I saw the advert and I thought “Dare I?”’ Louise recalls. ‘I was living in Peterborough at the time and I owned a house and it was going to be a massive change. So I thought, “Well, no harm, I’ll just apply. I probably won’t get it but I’ll just show interest” – and I got it.’
Her ability to work sheepdogs, a skill picked up initially from her mother, meant that she was out with a hastily assembled flock of Hebrideans practically from day one. A part-time assistant has recently been taken on, but until she has been fully trained to use the dogs, shepherding remains a seven-day-a-week job for Louise.
So does that mean she spends her weekly 56 hours just sitting in a field? Louise smiles wryly: it’s clear she’s been asked this one before. ‘I have brought books out with me and I have brought knitting out with me, but I never really get a chance to do it. The most I ever get to do is listen to Radio 4, because what I really miss is the spoken word. The most conversation I get during the day is with my dogs: I’m saying the same few words and Harry [a five-year-old Border collie] prefers chewing sticks to chatting.’
A typical day, however, remains reasonably uncomplicated. Louise gets the sheep from their overnight enclosure and takes them out into the forest with the help of one of the dogs (she uses three over the course of the day to avoid tiring them). The sheep go to work on the grasses that are suppressing the heather and at the end of the day are taken back to their inbye (fenced off) land. Then, of course, there’s all the supplementary work to be done such as the maintenance of equipment, the creation of enclosures, writing reports and a blog, negotiating with local landowners, educating schoolchildren, organising and leading the terrifically popular walking-with sheep days (some 300 people turned up for the last one), and matching up sponsors to lambs (you can name your lamb but it has to start with an A). Oh, and she also carries off the occasional prize at sheepdog trials.
With such manifold advantages, it would seem Natural England is getting very good value from its funding of the three-year project. ‘We already know that sheep-grazing benefits heathland – especially Hebridean sheep – and it adds an extra dimension to mechanical management of the heathland, such as mowing. The sheep select plants that wouldn’t normally grow on heathland and that adds an extra layer of management to what we do.’ Those who live locally enjoy access to an improved forest without any of it being closed off. They can also apply to become volunteer ‘lookerers’ who will be given Harry for the day and asked to check over the stock if Louise needs to be elsewhere.
The project also seems to have turned out well for the sheep. ‘When I first took them out on to the heath you could see they were enjoying themselves,’ Louise says with a laugh. They had interesting things to eat, were trying new things and they had somewhere new to go. They said “Right, we’ve got a job to do now” and just started going, all of them piling in together to eat that new thing. They do enjoy it.’
The good shepherd, it is said, is prepared to lay down his or her life for the sheep. Louise hopes it won’t ever come to that since the commonest danger comes from foxes around lambing time. There is, however, a mysterious predator stalking the forest, for which she keeps a keen eye. Seen but never yet photographed, a black cat – possibly a puma – is at large. For the unsqueamish there are photographs of the creature’s victims, sheep from nearby farms, on Louise’s blog on the Ashdown Forest website (www.ashdownforest.org/blog.php).
Louise hasn’t lost any sheep to the Beast of Ashdown Forest yet but she has had to endure some losses. ‘It was a hard winter,’ she says. ‘Sheep like dying – it’s their main ambition in life. They die of various things including getting stuck on their backs. We had liver fluke, which is a parasite that affects their livers, but they’re all dosed against it now.’
As for perks, aside from spending a great part of every day in breathtakingly beautiful surroundings, Louise has been able to arrange for some Ashdown Forest wool to be spun up from her own flock.
‘It’s a pretty exclusive product,’ she says. ‘The ultimate luxury sheep wool blended with alpaca [there’s an alpaca farm up the road]. I’m getting a jumper knitted out of it.’ There’s no meat to be had as yet, though. Hebridean sheep need to reach the grand old age of 18 months before they’re shipped off to the abattoir and Louise, a lapsed vegetarian, is keen to build up a grazing flock.
The greatest perk of all, however, comes from her interactions with the public, and it is in recounting these occasions that she is at her most animated: ‘There are so many people now who have come along and seen sheep out in the forest and think it’s wonderful. I’m also on hand to give them the conservation message.’
Lest we forget, conservation is ultimately what the project is all about, and being able to measure its success in conserving and regenerating heathland is vital. Louise has a student lined up to set up control areas in order to compare them with grazed forest, but even if these results are promising she still has to prove it’s feasible to manage a flock of Hebrideans in the forest and keep them going all year round.
The project has two more years to run. If it is demonstrated to have been a success – and the signs thus far are encouraging – it could prove the catalyst that kick-starts a number of similar schemes around Britain.
‘A lot of conservation organisations around the country are looking at this as a model project to see how this kind of shepherding can work,’ Louise asserts enthusiastically. As well as project funders Natural England, the impressive list includes a number of Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and the RSPB, as well as local authorities. Louise herself is preparing to visit Cannock Chase in Staffordshire to advise a body interested in launching a similar scheme even sooner. ‘The only limiting factor is having the right people to do it,’ she says.
The East Sussex project could well expand after its initial three years, since, as Louise contends, ‘There’s nothing to stop us having two or three flocks in the forest.’ If all goes well, the Ashdown Forest – famous as the home of Winnie the Pooh and friends – could also become known as the place that saw the renaissance of British shepherding.
Following the herd
UK The Grazing Animals Project oversees a large number of conservation grazing schemes from Orkney to the Isles of Scilly, although none of them as yet involves close shepherding. Highlights include the introduction of English Longhorns to the 6,000-acre Epping Forest to preserve ancient trees and their related flora and fauna, and the establishment of cattle and sheep around Loch Lomond to aid botanical diversity and improve the lot of ground nesting birds. See www.grazinganimalsproject.org.uk
Netherlands On the Veluwe in central Netherlands, a close shepherding scheme initiated by local people, has been active for the past decade. They have raised enough money to employ a shepherd to look after a flock of large white Veluwe Heideschaap sheep to maintain the heathland.
Germany Close shepherding has been a way of life on Lower Saxony’s Luneberg Heath that has never been allowed to die out. Indeed, the Germans have been rather canny about it and now use shepherding to attract tourists to the area. Shepherds dress in traditional garb, while local restaurants serve meat from the heath’s Heidschnucke sheep. A recent initiative has also seen cattle put on the heath.
Getting Involved To apply as a volunteer ‘lookerer’, sponsor a sheep (it only costs £5) or to follow Louise’s blog, visit the Ashdown Forest website. See www.ashdownforest.org
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2008