Thursday, 14 April 2016

Kexwith Farm, bringing the sheep off the fells

This is a day (or rather half a day) on Kexwith Farm, high above Marske in the Yorkshire Dales.

Kexwith is not the highest farm in the Dales, but probably is the most remote and inaccessible. Even ones like Ravenseat at the top of Swaledale (made famous by Amanda Owen) are not too far from the "main" road (even though it's a very small main road!), and have a paved track all the way to the farm (probably to make access easier for the many film crews that seem to visit). Kexwith on the other hand is seven miles along the Cordilleras road from Marske, going past military shooting ranges and then up onto bleak moors, before driving along unpaved track for the last mile and a half until you suddenly find the farm nestled in a little valley surrounded by hills: a stream runs by the front door of the house. In the past, a waterwheel on the nearby waterfall provided hydroelectric power for the house. Spring water provides all the water.

The area has had evidence found of settlements in the bronze age, and during the Roman occupation. The name is Norse and means a clearing in the trees (the area used to be wooded with silver birch, and apparently up on the peat moors the preserved birch trees can still be seen under the surface of the peat).

Sue and Ray Ridley are the farmers here. Their son Richard farms two farms close by (Tongue Hill and Schoolmaster Pasture), and will one day farm Kexwith. Kexwith is a true upland hill farm, with hardy Swaledale sheep.

This day involved rounding up the sheep on the fell top where they roam, and bringing them down to the barn to sort and inspect them. Unfortunately, at the moment the farm doesn't have a dedicated sheepdog: Bess and Brandy are a couple of labrador retrievers who help out as best they can, but they don't have the finely honed sheep herding instincts of a true sheepdog. A young pup called Max will fill this role once he grows up a bit, but apparently he already enjoys herding the chickens around the farmyard.

Without sheepdogs, the sheep were rounded up with Ray and Sue tempting them along with a bag of cake (food), on a quad bike. I tried to help out as best as I could by positioning myself to herd the flock in the right direction, and on one occasion was doing my best to stop a phalanx of sheep about 50 metres wide from darting past me in the wrong direction. But once one goes, they all go. They're sheep, after all.

Once down in the barn, they are funneled one by one through a system where Ray could segregate them into two basic categories: pregnant ewes and non-pregnant gimmers who would spend another year up on the fells before being "tupped" and having their first lambs. (For a nice little glossary of terminology, try this.) Care was also taken to identify any sheep with a limp: the awful wet weather of this last winter has been bad for the sheep's feet, and so Ray would take any affected sheep and clean up the hooves and sometimes administer drugs to help them recover.

The pregnant ewes were allowed to wander by themselves back up into the low field above the house, where they could be kept watch on when they start giving birth on the 15th (their due date). A couple of lambs were already trotting around, having been born prematurely.

All this was done with a tea break and stop for lunch, all cooked with the lovely Aga in the farmhouse kitchen.

It's quite a special life up there at Kexwith, and I know Sue and Ray take huge pride in their land, and flock of 450 sheep. It's quite a privilege to get to see that life up close.

The road along Cordilleras, above Marske.

The post box for Kexwith, at the start of the long dirt track to the farm.

My tiny little car didn't really have enough ground clearance for this road in some places.. I should have walked.

Kexwith farm.

This is Brandy.

The flock comes down from the fells.

Sue and Ray (and Bess) on the quad.

Tea break.

This is Max, who will be the new working dog of the farm once he has grown up a bit.

Bess's favourite resting place is inside the tractor. I guess she gets good visibility on what is going on all around.

Back off out to continue the rounding up.

Bess does her best to help round them up, but isn't a natural sheepdog, so I was standing in as a human sheepdog, trying to move the flock in the right direction. But once one sheep goes, the rest tend to follow. Like sheep, I suppose.

Bess's work is done.

It was quite a wet day.

In the barn, ready for sorting.

A couple of lambs had been born prematurely.

A few needed a bit of medical treatment to their feet, and penicillin shots.

All drug usage is recorded.

They are sorted into pregnant and non-pregnant sheep. The non-pregnant sheep (mainly the younger ones) go back up onto the fells. This is part of the self-replenishing stock strategy.

Taking another lame one out for treatment.

These are all the pregnant ewes.

The ewes are let back out into the low field so that in the next few days they can be kept watch on, as they start to give birth.

The lamb lost his mother, but will have met up with her once in the field.

This is a place where having a 4x4 is actually necessary.

Another break for tea.