What does it take to be a shepherd in 21st Century Saffron Walden?
PUBLISHED: 09:00 09 January 2017
Twenty-first Century shepherding might seem like an occupation most likely seen on a novelty Christmas card, but for a small group of passionate people by Sewards End, it is a daily reality - as Franki Berry was about to find out.
I was vaguely apprehensive as a self-professed outdoors-ophobe.
‘When in Rome’ I told myself that morning, bringing wellies, hoodies, gloves and a scarf along with my notebook and camera, getting so caught up in over-preparations that I forgot to look up precisely where it was. Ten minutes away from the office, I knew.
Half-an-hour later, and after having to stop and ask a man on the street, I finally found the tucked away field and was taken aback with the beautiful secluded little place.
Noakes Grove is a nine acre nature reserve which keep sheep both to cut back the grass and to provide a source of income by selling lambs, though it also has deer, wildlife, and an abundance of flowers.
The field where the sheep are kept is called Arbury Meadow, but it has been nicknamed Fete Field – this is where the Sewards End Village Fete was held every year in the 1980s.
Enclosures are rotated around the field to allow wildflowers to grow, which include Bee, Pyramidal and Spotted Orchids.
David Corke met me by the gate – he had anticipated issues – and led me through a small wood to a large field, where I could see two women tending to the flock.
He tells me they are Wiltshire Horn, a favourite breed among modern shepherds because their wool falls off by itself – a much less time consuming option in a world where wool is not a commodity anymore.
This is when I met George the dog, an adorable bouncy thing that was ecstatic at our arrival.
“Is this is a sheepdog?” I ask naively, petting enthusiastically, thinking that he looks wrong somehow, the wrong breed maybe, but not knowing enough about dogs, sheep, or sheepdogs to know why.
“No,” David replies, “He’s scared of sheep.” And that was that.
Shepherds Emma Horton and Elaine Corke introduced me to the flock, seven sheep in total, and explain that they are about to be moved to a different home in Wimbish, where the ram is, until spring.
The sheep – Genie, Phoebe, Lizzy, Donna, Josphine, Plum, and Stephanie – were named by the shepherds’ children, and they all look very similar to me, but I nod anyway when Emma points them out as distinguishable from the others.
We get down to the real shepherding, which included trying to cut the nail-like hooves as they bucked, and feeding the flock.
When I open the feed they all charge at me, stampede-style, and I have to fight back the urge to vault the fence in panic – it’s electric and I’m sure that would not end well for anybody.
But actually, they don’t care about me, and just want the food – tucking into it as quickly as I throw it down, giving me the chance to have a quick stroke.
Although their wool isn’t as soft as I think it will be (clouds, anyone?), I’m coming round to the idea that they are quite adorable.
Someone has to come and check on the sheep at least once a day, and Emma says it is the best part of the job.
She said: “My favourite thing about shepherding is having an excuse to come along and see the sheep, go on a walk, and take a breath of fresh air.”
After we are finished, David takes me on a tour of the reserve, explaining about different types of flowers and showing me the preserved graveyard of the former farm-owner brothers Kinver, Frank and Dennis Reeve.
On the way back, reflecting on the experience, I am not sure I’m entirely cut-out for shepherding.
I am, however, excited for the new lambs who will be born at Easter, and really glad to have met the shepherds, who were lovely.
Anyone who would like to volunteer should contact David on firstname.lastname@example.org – new people are always welcome.