There are many things related to wool that that bring me a sense of wellbeing. Some that are directly relevant to the following set of interviews are: contemplating the interconnectedness of things; how history runs into the present and how paying heed to the future is important in all our actions in the present.
If you read my previous post on Tansy you will know that a fictional Sussex shepherdess has been immortalised in a novel and film of the same name, and that they were very likely based based on a real and long forgotten person who has been neglected by traditional commentators.
In late September this year, I travelled a few miles from where I live to the sleepy village of Burpham where writer and bee keeper Edward Tickner Edwards was inspired to write his tale of a female shepherd. Here in the local pub, I met up with three people who are all involved in their own way in the continuation of sheep farming on the South Downs. Roland Grant (RG), secretary of a fund that supports agricultural students, Martin Pimm (MP) a shepherd and farmer of long standing and Rachel Cordingly (RC) not long out of agricultural collage and bringing a shepherdess back to the village and its environs.
Before I introduce you to the first of my interviewees, I’d like to tell you a little more about how the writing of this article came about. If you haven’t guessed already there is nothing I like more than a good chat with, and about Sussex shepherds past, present and future. Yes, future! We’ll get to that, I promise.
One such shepherd of the past was a man called Herbert Padwick [HP]. I have Duncton shepherd David Burden to thank for introducing me to him and his enduring legacy. HP came from a distinguished farming family and as well as being a celebrated dairy farmer, was known for his love of Southdown sheep. I believe his tireless activities in various organisations also show how he had the wellbeing of fellow farmers close to his heart. He was instrumental in setting up the Southdown Sheep Society, of which he was President in 1906, and was involved in the formation of the National Farmers’ Union, serving as the first president of the West Sussex branch in 1910. He also sat on the local County War Agricultural Executive Committee and gave evidence to the Royal Commission on Agriculture on behalf of the national NFU in 1919. During this period HP supported various activities to further the financial support on offer to farmers both locally and nationally. Not only did he contribute to the NFU’s efforts to create a NFU mutual insurance company, he was also involved in the purchase of Government War Bonds on behalf of the West Sussex branch. It seems he was always thinking ahead to the needs of future farmers. It was this last act which leads me to introduce you to my first interviewee Roland Grant, the current secretary for the NFU West Sussex Education Trust Fund.
LS: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, how you came to be involved with the West Sussex Education Trust Fund (WSETF), why you feel it is important, and what your hopes for the future of the fund are?
RG: I’ve lived in West Sussex for 20 years and have always been in the South East. I am now ‘retired’ and living in Burpham, so I’m lucky to be surrounded by Downland farms. I have been secretary of the fund for eleven years after a local farmer friend of mine Reg Hayden approached me to see if I would serve the committee that manages it. The fund is so important because it was set up by farmers to support the generations of farmers to come. Next year the fund will be celebrating 60 years of providing financial assistance having been started in 1958 when Government War Bonds purchased by the West Sussex NFU were joined together with some of the proceeds of the sale of the then West Sussex NFU headquarters in Chichester. One of the reasons I feel the fund is so important is very much connected to wellbeing; many bursaries and schemes get paid to the educational establishment, whilst WSETF goes directly to the student. This means it can help with a broad range of needs and is not restricted to tuition fees. In terms of my hopes for the future, I would really like to see more awareness of the fund and of course, more applications to it from local students.
LS: Can you tell me the purpose of the fund, and whether the aims and objectives have been changed or added to over time?
RG: The aims and objectives of the WSTF have remained constant; the fund is specifically for students who reside in West Sussex who need support in agricultural education or training. The student can attend any agricultural institution in England, but they must reside at the time of application in West Sussex. Students can apply more than once to the fund. For example, we may receive an application when a student is at college, and another when they have moved on to university. In the main, the fund has tended to receive applications from students about to start agricultural college straight from school. However, the committee is considering broadening the scope so that young farmers who are already farming and who may need further training can apply. Many certificates, for example machine handling need updating regularly and this can be expensive for those just starting out. We also welcome applications from mature students, an under-represented group, who may be considering a career change.
LS: How can people find out about the fund?
RG: As secretary, I send out information to all colleges and universities that run agricultural training courses. We are delighted that our nearest agricultural college at Brinsbury is proactive in encouraging students to apply. However, we seldom see applications from other institutions, which is a shame. We would also like to see something on the national NFU website directing people to their local fund. It can make all the difference to have extra assistance available.
LS: Are you able to tell me approximately how many people the fund helps?
RG: On average we help about 14 students a year. However, we are able to support more and we would really like to see more students applying to the fund.
LS: What sort of thing does the fund support?
RG: The fund is broadly worded to enable us to consider a variety of things. From machine handling courses, safe to use certification, protective clothing, personal equipment and transport to attend a course; we treat each application on its own individual merit.
The committee also considers funding activities by other organisations related to agriculture and education. For example, the fund supports ‘Connect with the Countryside’ an initiative run in connection with South of England Agricultural Society. The scheme offers school pupils a hands-on opportunity to learn about food, farming, the countryside and the environment.
We also support the work of the local Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) that provides financial support to farming people who may be facing hardship.
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When Roland’s near neighbour and local shepherd Martin Pimm’s flock started to grow he realised he needed another pair of hands to help maintain the equilibrium of wellbeing not only for the flock, but also his own health and happiness.
LS: Can you tell me about yourself, what you do, how you came to be doing it, and tell us about the flock you shepherd?
Martin: I don’t come from a farming background. I got into farming through horses. I liked horse riding as a kid and got a weekend job on a local farm leading ponies in, grooming them, getting the tack ready, and leading ponies out. This paid for my riding lessons. The farm also had cattle, sheep, and pigs and I got involved with farming in this way. By the time I left school I knew I wanted to get an apprenticeship on a farm. The farm I had done my horse riding on wasn’t big enough to take me on. I went through Sparshott college in Hampshire and got an interview on a mixed farm near there. They did a large amount of arable, and had a mixture of cattle, pigs and sheep. I stayed on this farm for 24 years. I went down the pig line on this farm rather than sheep, although I did a little bit of shepherding at busy times to help out.
Now I am in West Sussex, shepherding. When my other half and I had our son we wanted to move back to West Sussex. We heard about the farm we manage now. The estate had taken a large amount of land back from a retiring tenant farmer, and they wanted to put livestock back on the farm, and bring back a dairy. At the time they also had plans to have some pigs which fitted in with my experience, as well as a small flock of sheep.
In the end we steered away from pigs [Martin laughs] and went with cattle and sheep. We got larger and larger with the sheep, starting off with a flock of 350. This year we’ll put 1400 to the ram in November. We’re planning on stopping at 1500! We decided on Romneys because we wanted to lamb outside and they are quite a hardy breed, good at mothering, nice wool and the meat doesn’t tend to run as fat as Southdowns; all this fitted with what the estate wanted for the farm.
LS: What would you say is the most satisfying part of being a shepherd?
Martin: Loads, loads; where do I start? Lambing time is really special, even the lead up to it is really busy, scanning and condition-scoring all the sheep, setting the fields out to split the ewes up into smaller groups, and keeping ewes who have lambed away from those that have yet to lamb. It’s a continual rotation of sheep and lambs around the fields. Although it’s busy and everyone is very tired we don’t mind the long hours because it’s so rewarding.
I also love using the dogs to work with the sheep. We work over a big area here. Although we’re not far away from the busy coast of Sussex, up here on the South Downs the only road is the one through the village. It’s a nice place for the sheep to be. There’s nothing better than looking around and seeing a lovely healthy flock. It shows all the jobs you’ve been doing, worming, vaccinating, foot bathing, shearing, all the work over the year has paid off. It gives me a real sense of pride and satisfaction.
Seeing Rachel gaining experience has also been rewarding, knowing that when she gets her sheep dog things will be a bit easier for all of us. It’s great progress.
LS: For balance, I have to ask about the worst part of farming…
Martin: Culling is the hardest part; having to make that decision. It’s always based on the health of the individual sheep; if a ewe is too long in the tooth as they say or has had mastitis or a difficult pregnancy and you know the next one will be difficult. Having to take responsibility to cull is never an easy one.
LS: How many people are involved in helping with the sheep? Can you tell me about their roles?
Martin: When we got to 700 ewes I knew we needed someone else to help out. That’s when we found Rachel. When we reach 1,500 later this year that will be a big enough flock for Rachel and I to shepherd well between us on the land we have.
At lambing time my partner takes time off work to help out and we also take on a student placement. Other than that it is Rachel, me, and the dogs.
We do also get help with shearing. The guys we use are shearing all year round so they know what they are doing and can do a much better job than either Rachel or myself could manage.
LS: Are there any other aspects of wellbeing connected with the farm that you would like to share?
Martin: The estate itself really cares about conservation, and they plan that side of things. The Duke wanted to get back to a ‘patchwork quilt of fields’ look, and we work alongside the rangers to do our bit. All the fields have 8-10 meters of conservation headland that has chicory and other plants for bird cover and wildlife. There are also beetle banks and new hedging. Most of the sheep have to be electrically fenced so they don’t disturb the conservation efforts of the estate. This takes up quite a bit of our time. However, as a consequence we see a lot more kites, owls, lapwings and hares. There really has been a huge increase in the wildlife which is lovely to see when you are out and about on the farm.
In this area of the South Downs after the war it was pretty much all arable and we needed the sheep to put the organic matter back in the ground. The sheep fit well into the arable side and vice versa. There may be permanent grass leys but there are steep banks here so these are not very good for arable, yet the sheep can use these for grazing. The sheep fit into the arable side because they take a certain amount of acreage every year out of arable land. This is under-sown with grass so the sheep can graze for two years, then we can plough that up and have that for arable again. This system happens all around the estate.
LS: What happens to your wool?
Martin: All our wool goes to the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) regional depot. In the last few years as wool prices have grown a little we have now been able to cover our shearing costs, but we never used to. I would like to know what happens to our wool, but the system isn’t set up for that. We do get a certificate telling us when we have sent in a good, rolled fleece and this makes us feel good. Other than that we don’t find out what our wool is used for. Time-wise there just isn’t the scope for us to do any more with the wool than sending it to the BWMB.
LS: What about your hopes for the future? Is there anything else you would like to achieve?
Martin: Our hopes are to continue with a healthy farm, keeping our own breeding stock, and being able to maintain the flock in peak health. There used to be a South Down Marketing Group that was set up to be a cooperative where local farmers could sell their meat to local supermarkets and butchers. Sadly, this didn’t succeed; we would love to have a more local market for our produce.
There is a lot of uncertainly around Brexit. We worry about cheap imported meat of uncertain provenance. We don’t produce enough meat here in the UK to be self-sufficient, so this is a real concern.
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After completing agricultural college Rachel saw the Martin’s advertisement for a post helping to shepherd the estate’s flock. Now Burpham and the Downs around the village has a new shepherdess.
LS: Rachel, can you tell us about yourself, what you do, and how you came to be doing it?
Rachel: I grew up on a farm; my dad’s dad was a farmer so it’s in the family. From the age of four all I wanted to do was be out and about helping my dad. I always kept a few pet lambs and looked after them. All through school I just wanted to get home and get out on the farm. Some people say it’s hard at 16 to set your life path, but I just knew. I left school and went straight to agricultural college for two years. You learn the basics and have the chance to study different modules: pigs, sheep, cattle, crops, soil and so on. Alongside lectures you have one day a week of work experience.
LS: What is your fondest memory of agricultural college?
Rachel: I loved milking duties. I had never done it before and it was really nice getting up early in the morning; well sometimes anyway! [Rachel laughs] It was totally different from anything I’d done before. Going to college gave me the opportunity to try new things, and put new things into practice.
LS: Thinking about the West Sussex Education Trust Fund, how easy was it for you to apply, and are you happy to tell us what you used it for?
Rachel: I found out about the WSETF through my tutor at college and the application process was easy. I applied for help to get to college and back, the purchase of some-steel capped boots, and a telehandling course for the tractor. Although I’m focused on the sheep, I help out at harvest time on the arable side and there’s always something big like the animal water bowsers to move around, so I need the tractor for those jobs.
LS: So you’ve swapped from cattle to sheep. How did that happen?
Rachel: After college I got my first job on a mixed farm where I’d done my lambing work experience. Then I saw this job with the estate helping Martin with the sheep, and I thought I’ve quite enjoyed working with the sheep, and this is a bit different concentrating on one aspect. I really enjoy it.
LS: Thinking about our wellbeing theme, can you tell me what you like about your new role as a shepherdess?
Rachel: Lots of things! Before I worked with a Beulah Speckled flock they are a bit scatty and noisy. I prefer the Romneys we have here. We’re more of a team, and I am much more involved in the planning as well as the day-to-day work. I like being focused on the sheep and with a larger flock there is always plenty to do. Like Martin, lambing time is my favourite time of year despite all those long hours. When you see all the lambs running and jumping around in the fields it feels worth it. I’m looking forward to getting my own sheep dog this weekend and having the opportunity to learn another skill, handling a dog.
LS: Do you think there is a cut off in terms of the number of ewes in the flock?
Rachel: Oh yes, Martin and I have talked about this. If you are dashing about all over the place trying to keep up then the health of the flock will suffer and you won’t enjoy it either. That’s when accidents happen. We’re sticking with 1,500 between us.
LS: What about your least favourite part?
Rachel: I don’t really have one. I don’t mind bad weather; mud can be a bit annoying when it’s clogging up your boots. You just need to have a spare pair of clothes because you never know what might happen.
LS: Last but not least do you have any advice for other young people thinking about a career in sheep farming?
Rachel: You’ve got to be dedicated. I think it is easier coming from a farming background, especially the kind of hours we work. It’s not nine-to-five and your heart has to be in it. You are responsible for your animals, and there’s no real day off. Going to agricultural college is a great place to start if you haven’t come from a farming background. You’ll soon find out if it’s for you.
Thanks to Roland, Martin and Rachel for sparing time out from their busy schedules to talk with me, and for agreeing to share their woollness stories. After leaving the pub we headed up to the farm atop the South Downs to take this picture. I left them beside the field of sheep, with views across the Downs and clouds that felt close enough to catch looking as radiant as I felt.
Louise Spong is the founder of South Downs Yarn and produces woollen spun Southdown wool grown and dyed in the South Downs. You can visit her website at https://www.southdownsyarn.co.uk/ and you can find her on instagram as @louise_sdy and twitter as @SouthDownsYarn