August 5, 2008

The Shepherd's Crook - a brief history

By Dr Clive Dalton

A crook, staff or stick has been a shepherd’s multi-purpose tool-of-trade since man first herded sheep. It has even become a religious symbol for high-ranking clergy to show their responsibility for their flocks.

A stick has many uses. It’s a support for walking over rough terrain as in New Zealand high country mustering; a means of catching ewes and lambs around the neck or legs, and a defence weapon against flock predators.

Photo shows me at The University of North Wales, Bangor (1956-59) during a lambing collecting data for my Ph.D. My trusted Hazel stick with Blackface ewe's horn handle never let me down. I did have problems with the dog though, as it worked to commands in Welsh!

Few shepherds ever had money to buy a stick, even if they were available. Sticks in shops were for sale to tourists, so unless an old shepherd and stick dresser gave you a stick, the only option for a young shepherd was to start and make their own, hoping they’d get some help from a local expert who would reveal his secrets!

I was lucky enough to be given my first stick at age13 by a noted Border Shepherd, Michael Anderson, when I plucked up enough courage to ask him how to bend a sheep’s horn. He was generous with his knowledge and honoured me with a stick. It was a memorable visit to his workshop with few tools but much wisdom.

But a shepherd’s stick is more than a tool of trade; it also makes a personal statement about the owner so you‘d never criticise a fellow worker’s stick, no matter how ugly it was.

So it’s easy to see how the craft of stick dressing developed into a competitive art form, with one shepherd trying to beat his mates on the next farm, in the next valley or in my birthplace in Northumberland, across the Border. There was intense competition among shepherds for sticks to be presented to Royalty, so their secrets became even more jealously guarded.

This all changed, thankfully for the better in 1951, by the formation of “The Border Stick Dressers Association (BDSA) at the home of Mr J. McGuffie in the College Burn valley in the shadow of “The Cheviot” hill on the English side of the Scottish Border.

Their first patron was the Duke of Northumberland, and the first president was Mr George Snaith. George without doubt was the most famous stick dresser of all time who turned the craft into a mind-boggling art form. I had the enormous privilege of visiting his workshop with few tools and no electricity. He did all his intricate artistic work in a cold shed illuminated by a paraffin lamp, with a pocket knife he made himself. Some of his massive stick collection is now housed in Alnwick Castle while his relatives hold the rest.

The BDSA aims were to keep alive the dying craft, to help fellow stick dressers obtain horns and shanks, and to have demonstrations and competitions (for prize money) at shows and to appoint judges.

Border Stick Dressers Association. Contact Wilf Laidler (see below).
Laidler, W. (2007?). Border Stick Dressers Association. The first 50 years.
Contact Wilf Laidler, 18 Crumstone Court, Killingworth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE 12 6SZ.

This Association fortunately has widened interest in the craft far beyond shepherds who are a dying breed world wide, but in 1996 the European Union nearly regulated it out of business. They brought in a regulation which deemed that the head of all sheep and goats (with the exception of the tongue) had to be incinerated to prevent the spread of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

However, a massive stick dressers’ campaign in 2000 won the day with the British and EU parliaments, so the use of tups‘ horns was still allowed. What sweetened the victory was the acceptance of the Prince of Wales to be one of the Patrons of the Association.

Stick types
1. Straight staffs. Made from stout sticks of native timbers such as Manuka or Lancewood.
2. Thumb sticks. These are made from sticks with a natural V near the top used for the walker‘s thumb. Deer antler is sometimes used to make the V and it’s joined to the shank with a spigot on the shank fitting a hole in the horn.
3. Wooden headed sticks. These are cut out of a solid block of wood from which the sapling shank is growing.
4. Horn headed sticks. These are made from animal horns, usually rams but goats and cattle horns can be used.

Horns in New Zealand
1. Merino. These are good but tend to be thin and don’t have the mass of horn seen in the Drysdale or Dorset Horn.
2. Drysdale. Ideal horns but very low numbers available.
3. Dorset Horn. Ideal horns but low numbers available.
4. Goats. There are large numbers of feral goats and horns of bucks grow very long. There is not a great bulk of horn to work on.
5. Cattle. Not very suitable to work on as there is very little solid end.

The stick pictured I made from a Wiltshire Horn ram's horn. It would be classed as a 'plain stick' in contrast to a 'fancy stick' .
The shank is Hazel wood.

The Hazel (Corylus avellana)
The hazel is the 'Rolls Royce' of stick shanks. It's very light to carry and use, but the fibres in the wood make it very strong and will bend a long way before it will break. If a stick shank does break, it's usually not a clean break but more of a split and tearing of the fibres, and you see many old shepherds' sticks rescued with electrical insulating tape.

Hazel trees showing their growth form which encourages suckers
from the base and lower branches. The suckers make the stick shanks.

The main advantage of the Hazel is that it is very easy to coppice and produced new growth from the base. So traditionally this was used for barrel hoops and hurdles for folding stock. They were also used in hedging where they were easily bent to bind and keep the top branches of the Hawthorn hedge in place once it had been cut and bent over.

In early British history Hazels were use in wattle-and-daub huts and half-timbered buildings in areas (with chalk areas) where timber, stone and clay were hard to come by.
See H.L.Edlin (1949). British Woodland Trees. Batsford Ltd.

A good day's stick hunt
Below is a mouth-watering heap (to a stick dresser) of Hazel shanks cut from the trees in the above picture. They will take a year to dry. It's very important not to tell anyone else where you got them from.

A stick in good hands
This is Arthur Cowan, aged 94, an icon of a Kiwi. He fought in North Africa to get rid of Romel then in the Italian campaign in WW11, spent time in a German prison camp. He returned to farm hill country near Otorohanga in the North Island of New Zealand and has dedicated his latter years to conservation. He is never idle, planting native trees, preserving bush, and educating others to the wonder of New Zealand landscape.

I was very proud to make him a stick - which as you can see is in very good hands.

More information
Google 'Shepherd's Staves' for more information on the history of the shepherd's stick.

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