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Shepherding in Wales, a Brief Insight
by Richard Smith
In the years I have
been a shepherd things have changed so much. Originally you would
have a flock of sheep, usually around 1,000 to care for, perhaps
with a small herd of suckler (breeding) cows to look after as
well. You got to know the stock you cared for. Walking around your
flocks of sheep, asking your dog to catch one that didn’t look right
or to round up the whole flock and bring them closer to you meant
they could be properly looked after. You tended to remember each ewe
from one lambing to another so those who had difficulty lambing
could have a closer eye kept on them the next time they were in
lamb. The lambs going to market was the main source of income from
the sheep (there is only a tiny amount made from a sheep’s
fleece). The breeding ewes and their resulting lambs were well
looked after, and a pen of well reared healthy fat lambs at market
was a farmers pride and joy. Then, after entering the EU, (the
common market as it was known then), things quickly began to change.
could make money on his sheep without having to look after them so
well. Money was paid per head of sheep: a “subsidy” was paid per
breeding ewe, not per lamb she produced, so the richer a farmer
wanted to get the more head of sheep he would keep. The lambs that
survived and headed for the meat market were, more or less, a financial
bonus; the less conscientious farmers, or those who felt they were
rich enough, did not have to bother to ensure their lambs were
properly looked after. Now as fertilization of land is occurring, it
allows for each acre of pasture to contain a higher amount of stock.
Wales, on the whole, own more sheep than they ever have before. Many
small farms and small holdings, for example of between 5 to 50 acres
worked and kept by generations of the same family, have been bought
up by wealthier landowners. The land is incorporated into their own
farms and the houses sold or rented out, often as holiday
accommodation. These huge farms are too large for shepherds to walk
around in one day so they rush around on 4-wheeled farm bikes (the
luckier dogs sitting behind them; the unluckier one running along
This can mean that a
shepherd’s job is busier than ever before, with jobs being rushed,
corners cut, and job satisfaction becoming a thing of the past.
However, here in Wales, although we have had to go through these
changes due mainly to the geography of Wales, these changes have
been slower and not so obvious. Wales is made up mainly of
mountains, hills and valleys, and the sheep are adapted to this
often very high and steep terrain.
Here is an aerial view
of a farm where I worked in mid-Wales. The area of water was also
once a valley occupied by farming families. In the 1970s the
government decided the best way of getting water to some of the
heavily populated areas of England was to build a dam here and let
the valley flood so forming a reservoir. The Clywedog dam was the
There are a variety of
native sheep breeds in Wales, often named from where they
originated, such as: Welsh Mountain, the Beulah, Llynes, Llanwenog,
Balwens, and Hardy Speckles to name a few.
The small Native Welsh mountain sheep live out on the hills all year round.
This picture gives the viewer a good idea of the terrain.
The small Native Welsh mountain sheep are
a very hardy breed, “real survivors” and cope with the extremes of
weather that get thrown at them. This is a photo of Welsh rams in
the snow from a hill farm called Llechridau (pronounced cleck-rid-die)
in North Wales.
For most of the
year, the sheep live on the natural grazing found in the uplands and
mountains as they are not really suited to the lush rich grass found
on the lowland farms. In winter and at lambing time, some receive
supplementary feed. Traditionally this was hay, but in recent years,
some farmers have switched to making silage. Lambing in
Welsh Mountain ewes usually occurs in
April with mainly single lambs being born which are lively and quick
to their feet to suckle.
On the lower farms,
Welsh Mules (mules: Welsh or Speckle ewes crossed with a Blue faced
Leicester Tup [a ram]), are very prolific, good mothers, heavy
milkers and well suited to the more intensive lowland farming
It doesn’t matter
how many sheep shepherds look after and how quick their quad bike
is, without their dogs it would be almost impossible for them to
carry out their tasks. The dogs play a major role in a shepherd’s
day-to-day work to include: periodically collecting sheep in from
the hills, mountains or moors for shearing, dipping, weaning,
jabbing (giving injections against the usual sheep diseases),
sorting, i.e., ewes for culling or for sending older ewes to
lower farms for milder conditions.
This picture shows
how sheep are driven through a small Welsh town on their way back to
the hill after shearing.
Photo Courtesy of Kurt Heckman
The shepherds' dogs usually used in Wales are:
Border Collie, Welsh Collie, Huntaway, Kelpie and Beardies. In
recent years, there is a lot more interest in the Welsh Collie and
Beardies because of their ability to move large flocks of sheep.
When speaking to many older and retired shepherds and farmers, they
recall having a Beardie on their parent’s farm. The Border Collie,
with its “eye” and style for the sheep, became the main sheepdog (in
more recent times). However, as flocks of sheep are increasing in
size, people are finding the Beardie, with less “eye” and more push,
better suited for moving large flocks of sheep.