October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – Herding (Heordin) sheep

 Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.

By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg

An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton & Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact donaldclegg@btopenworld.com

For daft laddies aspiring to learn the skills of shepherding or heordin, there was a long apprenticeship ahead. There was a mystical air about these skills and it was often said that they could not be learned – they had to be bred in ye! Mebees so, as heords had been aroond since Cain and Abel and after aall, heordin’ sheep was said to be the second oldest profession, remember!

A 'gud kennor'
A major skill of a top heord was to be a good “kennor”. This was the ability to know (ken) every sheep in the flock, which in ootbye flocks would be quite a few hundred per heord. Blackies and Swaledales were easy to recognise because of variation in their face colour; but the real challenge was the Chivits (Cheviots) that all looked alike to non-Chivit heords. A good kennor of Chivits could claim great status at local gatherings of heords at sales and shows.

The farm you had been heordin was a vital part of your CV. If you could start a conversation by – “Aye, Aa mind the time Aa was heordin’ on Blindburn, or on Cottonshhopeburn Foot (or farms like these with great status) –it was like saying - “nuw cock yor lugs bonny lads and tek note of some profound pearls of shepherding wisdom”.

The other great heordin mantra, (apart for being born with the Godly gifts), was that “ye cudn’t leuk sheep unless ye waalked the hill”. If you suggested transport by horse or, worse still, mechanically propelled, yi’d see nowt and it was the height o’ damn’d laziness inti’ the bargain. Gud heords waalked - and that was the end on’t.

Apart from lambin’ time, the purpose of aall this waalkin’ was to “rake” or move the sheep over their grazing area. This prevented overgrazing of areas with good feed, and made sure sheep had a balanced diet that changed as different plants grew over the fells in each season. In early spring the cotton grass would be at its most nutritious, then the new leaves of the bent and finer grasses appeared, and later the high protein and mineral-rich heather leaves, and so on.

Hefted sheep
There were no fences on the fells and sheep were “hefted” on their own areas or cuts. Raking sheep meant you had to caa them in iv’ a mornin’ and caa them oot at night. There was little to it apart from puttin’ owld Queen or Moss oot wide nuw and again and plenty o’ shootin’ (How-How’in) and whistlin’. The sheep knew where to go as they had learned their territory and their diet as lambs from their mothers. There might be an odd yowe or two to hund back tiv her own cut as she’d strayed, but they were generally very territorial.

The yowes that got ye really vexed though, were the “dyke loupers” and man! many a time ye could cut thor throats, if ye cud git haad o’ them. Nowt would stop them loupin’ dykes and their lambs soon learned to follow their mothers i’ nee time. These cunning owld bitches used to take a run at the dyke and use the thruffs as steps. All you could do was to stretch a single wire alang the top o’ the dyke but it didn’t stop the real Houdinis.

Some tups got gay geud at the practice an’ aal before the official opening day, but they had a different mission in mind! You could always chain two together by their horns (including a swivel) which seemed to fool them – if they louped the dyke, they both had te gan tigithor and that teuk a bit mair workin’ oot!

Winter time had other challenges of course with the risk of sheep being buried in snow drifts in slacks and up against staene dykes. So, prior to storms it was important to caa them on to bare grund where the snow didn’t accumulate so much with the wind. Or sheep were heorded near to the circular stone stells for safety, where they could be found.

Sheep stell on Dally Castle fell
Rogerson's Heathor Lowpers
And here’s where the greatest boots ever made played their part. Made by Rogerson’s of Rothbury, they were “pedal perfection” for the heord, with their finest quality leather, famous turned up toes, and precision placed hob nails. Under the hob nails at the toe was a half moon copper plate to stop the heather wearing away the leather between the nails, and there was a copper strip around the toe neb, again for protection.

A historical tragedy. This is the last boot that Rogerson's have left in their Rothbury shop. It's not a heord's 'Heathor Lowper' with copper plates on the toe, but more a 'mart boot' or one to wear to church. They only have one boot left! The sole is protected with 'Segs' and not hobnails.

The masterstroke was the shape, designed to propel you forward and across the heather and bull snoots by an action called the “heather lowp”. They were also called “Simonside” boots, named after the famed Rothbury hills of that name. All you needed to cap the job was a pair of thick home-knit socks made from that speckled wool from Otterburn Mill – still smelling of sheep!

A bit of goo luck!
By a stroke of luck through an old North Tyne friend (Mavis Nixon) and via some of her old friends who remember the originals, we have got some photos by kind permission of Jane Armstrong at North Chatton Farm, Chathill, Alnwick, Northumberland. By the look of them, their shepherding days are over but they show the main features of the turned up toes and hobnail pattern.  Note they have no toecap.

 More good luck
 Peter Hewison who lives in Bellingham and works on local farms still has a pair of Rogerson's Simonside boots and  sent these photos.

Bellingham bootmaker - Willie Murray
Willie Murray, the bootmaker and cobbler in Bellingham used to stock Rogerson’s boots along with other brands. Willie would bring a box doon from his shelves in the back room or up from doonstairs, lift a boot with great reverence, out from among its tissue paper, give it a wipe with his black pinney and declare – “This one’s your size and has a grrand last. Aa think yi’ll find it varry suitable – a little bit dearror mebbe but worth the extrra muney”. Once you got a whiff of that leather and saw those copper nebs – you were hooked.

The ‘extra money’ was a whole £5, a week's wages in 1949 for a laddie. I (DC) weel remember me forst pair of Rogerson's 'Simonside' heather lowpers and the pride Aa felt when Aa put them on to work the next day. Aa stepped ower ivvery clarty hole and bit o' cuw muck aal day to meck sure they didn't git dorteed and spent far ower much time admiring them when Aa should've been fotherin’ beast or riddin’ the caert shed. But by! man, they couldn't half shift ower the fell, as if ye hed springs in yor heels!

A few days later, Aa had te gan to the Northern in Bellingham on the old grey Fergie. The Boss drove so Aa sat on the top link with me feet on the chains of the drawbar arms. Beggor! By the time we got back to the farm it was ower late to realise that one of me wunderful new boots had been in direct line with the tractor's exhaust pipe and cracks were already appearing in the sole. What a heartbreak! In spite of the damage, I continued to wear them every day, weel layered wi' dubbin until they eventually fell apart, months afore thor time.

Waste nowt - boots recycled into clogs
Willie Robson said that when the soles of their heord’s boots collapsed, they sent them to the local cobbler to be “clogged”. They were then much lighter and grand for the haytime. Nowt had to be wasted remember.

But these heord laddie boots were not gud for workin’ i’ the byors, as with all the hobnails you could’nt keep your feet on smooth concrete, cobbles covered in a thin layer of gleet or ice. But eh man, they wor grand for givin’ a wayward sucklor a reminder whee was boss.

From beuts te bikes
But today’s modern heords, if you ever see one, move ower the hill on their 4-wheel Japanese quad bikes with collie dogs standing on the back smiling, also saving their legs. What a vision of the modern technological age! What would the owld heords have said?

Well just hing on a bit. Sixty years ago I (CD) remember Tommy Hedley of the Demesne farm in Bellingham lookin’ his sheep on a motorbike. It was belt driven, had the old long square petrol tank, long handlebars and a distinctive cough, cough, cough that “caad the yowes te the knowes” with great effect. Tommy carried his stick across his back, tied with a bit of binder twine, as he chugged around the fell.

What ridicule he got, I remember. Farmin’ and village folk at the time aall agreed that lookin’ sheep from a motor bike was almost sinful and surely the very pinnacle of laziness.
Well, let us two aged daft laddies record some long-awaited recognition to the late Tommy Hedley, our much loved and highly respected Bellingham pianist and church organist, for his vision in seeing the potential for the farm motor bike – at least 60 years afore its time! Tommy’s bike would be worth a fortune today.

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