Sunlight sifts through the clouds, a pale, dusty gold. The deep olive green of the valley is flecked with copper and rust. Daddy long legs hang, blackish-grey, like pieces of ash, in the air. It is Autumn and time to gather the sheep in from the fells.
We are already late and the quad bike is speeding through the dale’s narrow lanes. The sheep dogs, Tan and Floss, are in the back with Kate; Floss nestling her head against Kate’s shoulder. I am sitting behind James at the front, holding on tightly.
‘We’re going up there,’ he points. In the distance we see the faint outline of the felltops, hidden by the morning mist.
As we pass through a small hamlet two old men come out to greet James. ‘They’re doing a piece on the most handsome shepherds in the Lake District,’ James nods towards us. The men chuckle. The taller of the two leans his head back and runs his hand through his thick white hair. ‘And that’s why they call him the silver fox,’ James whispers.
Arriving at the fell gate we are met by shepherds Kevin and Alastair. The three discuss their route and the next meeting point. Our job is to move up towards Mason, the eldest of the shepherds. He has gone out earlier today and is already clearing the tops of the fells. He will bring the sheep down towards us.
Motoring up into the fells the terrain becomes bumpier. ‘Just have to hope we don’t turn the quad on one of the peat hags,’ James laughs, ‘it’s brand new!’ I laugh along, holding on a little tighter.
The first small group of sheep come into view. ‘Away, away!’ commands James and both dogs leap off the back, circling the sheep anti-clockwise. Excited, Tan chases the sheep a little too quickly but is promptly bought back into line by James’s stern, guttural commands. Several minutes later and the sheep are moving along calmly. Success.
The land lies flat for a while and with the sheep trotting obediently, we can take in the immensity of the scene. The mist is clearing and the sunlight magnifies and mellows the moorland; illuminating the burnt orange lustre of the coarse grass, softening the contours of the hills so that from afar they seem velvety and smooth. The only hint of man is the dry-stone walls that carve up the valley, dipping down in curves and rising back up again. Each stone handled, judged, chosen, each stone holding its own vast history.
Then, on the higher ground, James spies a dark silhouette. It is Mason and hurrying before him is a group of 60 or so sheep. Tan and Floss are alert, waiting for instruction. With the signal from James they dart off, one left and one right, heading towards the sheep.
But as the sheep descend they are beginning to pick up speed and, in an instant, have suddenly veered off course. Ascending a steep, adjacent hill the group scatter, scrambling frantically upwards.
James is heading towards the sheep. Yelling at Tan and Floss to ‘look back’ – a sheepdog command reassuring the dogs that they should keep going, even though the sheep are, for them, now out of sight. The other side of the hill is rocky and steep, dangerous for the sheep, particularly in their heightened state.
Kate and I hold our breath. Tense with uncertainty. Tan and Floss are racing at full pelt now. Up and up. I have never seen dogs move so fast, but they need to move even faster if they are to overtake the sheep. The first few sheep are already vanishing on the skyline. Tan and Floss are nowhere to be seen.
And then, as quickly as they had disappeared, a swathe of white spills over the brow of the hill.
Tan and Floss have done it. Slowly, gently, the runaway group descends.
‘Good dogs,’ James pats them on the head, mustering a smile. Kate and I exchange wide-eyed, awe-filled glances.
The small first group of sheep joins with the second group and soon a large river of white is running through the valley.
Mason emerges at our side, scowling. ‘Should have left that to me,’ he grumbles and moves off.
‘Is he very cross?’ I ask, worried that we have offended this wise, old shepherd. ‘Not at all,’ James replies, ‘that’s nice for him.’
We join the other shepherds and progress is quick with Kevin’s nimble dogs guiding the sheep through the tricky dips and dives of the fell’s rocky edges. Before we know it, we have reached the pen at the base of the fell. It is here that the sorting begins, each sheep separated out by its ‘smit marks’ (painted markings). It is more jovial now and much less tense.
‘Who won best tup at Cockermouth?’ Mason teases James. ‘Go on,’ he prompts me, ‘ask him!’ But James, as it turns out, has won several prizes too this year and any rivalry is friendly.
This is a tight team and their mutual respect is clear. They rely on each other and the sheep rely on them; winter in the fells is cruel, desolate and harsh and this ancient communal task of ‘gathering’ is essential. Tomorrow they will go even higher into the fells. They will be on foot, where quad bikes cannot go. They will bring back the remaining sheep, the ones that got away.
Returning to the farm we bump into Jean, the ‘Queen of the Herdwicks.’ James tells me that it is with the offspring of her flock that he has won his prizes. ‘I can never work out if she’s annoyed or proud.’ From her smiles and dry, yet gentle wit I would put my money on proud. This place only exists because of the continuation of what has gone before.
Words by TOAST copywriter, Emily Mears. Photography by TOAST social media manager, Kate Allchin.
To keep warm up on the fells Emily wore the Maxi Must Sweater and Moss Stitch Cashmere Gloves and Kate wore the Check Jacquard Tunic with the Fine Donegal Rib Bobble Beanie.