It’s a cool damp morning framed by bleating sheep and the smell of bracken. Plodding up the hillside I am looking for boot-marks in the boggy ground amongst the white flags of cotton grass. They should have gone this way a couple of hours before me.
Cresting the ridge the wind spits rain into my face, making my eyes water. I am relieved I had the good sense to put on plenty of layers, which didn’t really seem necessary when I left home. The cloud is lifting, thank goodness, so I am able to scan the huge expanse of moorland and bog spread out in front of me. I can’t see any sheep, or people, which is a bit worrying. I have come up here to watch one of my neighbours ‘gather’ the sheep from his mountain-land and take them down to the farm for shearing. He should be ahead of me somewhere. Eventually I spot some sheep on the drier ground about a mile away and, encouragingly, a few are in single file heading slowly downhill.
Gradually the sheep coalesce into lines, like milk trickling slowly into the bowl of dead ground behind the ridge to my right – then the place is empty again. Sitting in the heather, idly eating bilberries, I watch a kestrel slide out over the great expanse of bog, which is being swept by weak patches of sunlight. You might think this remote, wind-torn landscape is untouched, the very essence of wildness, but sheep have been sculpting it for hundreds of years. As the writer Roger Deakin put it so aptly “they keep the contours… clear, sharp and well defined, like balding picture-restorers constantly at work on every detail.” On a nearby crag I can see a single yellow flower of goldenrod clinging to the one place the sheep can’t reach; a whisper of what might be if the incessant nibbling were to cease.
After about an hour the sheep still haven’t reappeared so I begin retracing my steps in case they have got round behind me. Sure enough, a long line of ewes and lambs are snaking slowly across the hillside below me and bottlenecking at a gate. Up to my left a man with two dogs is slowly descending the hillside, whistling to the sheep, urging them forward. There is a cacophony of bleating as the ewes try to stay in touch with their lambs in the jostle. At the gate I meet my neighbour with his brother and grown-up son, plus eight sheep dogs. He explains to me that they have been taking it slowly, “if you don’t hurry them you will get the job done quicker in the end” – because the ewes are less likely to lose their lambs and go looking for them. These sheep are following a path of their own making over many generations and the men are in their grandfathers’ footsteps. These are the only paths here, ground into the hillside by the feet of countless sheep and attendant boots. Although the men have been walking for hours over rough terrain they are still moving easily, almost strolling through the bracken and across bogs. In full waterproofs and wellingtons (but bareheaded, surprisingly) they have the casual ease of people in their element. They have known sheep farming since they were boys and their expertise is palpable.
It is the continuity, the steadiness through time that strikes me. In a febrile week of politics following the Brexit vote, when our world seems in turmoil, it is reassuring to walk with these men following traditional rhythms and routes. Yet even here politics colour perception: no hill-farmer can stay in business these days without EU subsidies. For how much longer will sheep and men follow these paths at the edges of British agriculture?