Sep 10 2004

White Face in Autumn


Of the Sheep is cast away nothing
His horns for notches – to ashes goeth his bones
To Lordes great profit goeth his entire dung,
This tallow also serveth plastrers, more than one,
For harp strings his ropes serve everyone,
Of whose head boiled whole and all
There cometh jelly, ointment full Royal.
For aches and bruises
It is remedy that doeth ease quickly
Causing men’s stark points to recure,
It doeth sinews again restore to life.
Black sheep’s wool, with fresh oil of olive,
The men at arms, with charms, they prove it good
And at straight need, they can well staunch blood.

C13th Verse

September 1st and the valley is glowing in golden autumn sun. The early morning sky is a transparent blue as the first skein of geese fly in, a perfect V formation, to find their winter quarters. They squeal excitedly as they spot the creek and the shiny mud below them. They wheel around and make their hilarious landing sticking their feet out in front as brakes. They‘re not so popular with everyone, so hungry after their journey, but I love to watch them paddling and sloshing about in the water near my gate. They’ve come a long, long way and deserve a rest.

Flying lessons, on the telegraph wires outside my back door, have been going on for some time now. I call out to them hopelessly “don’t leave yet, stay a little longer, maybe we’ll have an Indian Summer…” But I think the first cohort of house martins, swifts and swallows have already left. A sure sign that the summer is drawing to a close.

Mornings are sharp now. I need layers of clothes in the farmyard in the early morning only to caste them off later as the sun comes up. Today the valley was swathed in a chilling thick mist and donkeys faded from sight as they climbed the hill. Sheep grazing, seemed to float on the hillside. There was a thick dew on the ground and cobwebs glistened in the first light.

as it was

The annual sale of White Face Dartmoor sheep is over once more, a regular August event. Since the terrible out break of foot and mouth a few years back, the sale is no longer held in a gently sloping field outside Ashburton. Fortunately, not knowing it’s days were numbered, I took photos of one of the last rural sales.

a new venue

Now we must go to the market in town so that trailers can be washed, feet (human) dipped in disinfectant and all manner of new regulations adhered to. It’s one more tradition stealthily lost, a small one perhaps, but a sad loss after hundreds of years of the breeds history. This is how we are losing so many country events, traditions and skills. A knee-jerk, frightened, urban reaction rather than respect for the knowledge of the people who have been farming the land and breeding animals for generations. It makes me sad and angry.

the auction begins

a ram is sold

Despite all this we had a good day at the sale held this year at Newton Abbot Livestock Market. Best of breed was judged and sheep were auctioned. Ewes and lambs were fetching good prices again. But too many rams and too few buyers meant their prices were low and beautiful animals went home unsold. We took the opportunity to buy “Junior”, a handsome full mouth who will bring new blood to our flock. Next year maybe we’ll try a new venue for the sale, combine ours with another breed perhaps. Trial and error with the new order.

choosing the champion

The White Face Dartmoor is believed to be one of England’s most ancient breed of sheep. In early times it was found not only on Dartmoor but also all over Devon and in West Somerset too. As land became enclosed, the breed was driven back to it‘s origins on Dartmoor where it flourishes today. Needless to say they are very hardy sheep and can survive on the poorest pasture. On the moor most grazing is between 500-2000 feet above sea level and the majority of the flocks stay out from May to December. We farm south of the moor in milder climes so we leave our sheep out all year with the exception of a few days during lambing. The ewes have a reputation for their excellent mothering skills and some off- the- moor farmers don‘t even bring them in at all but let them lamb in the field. We bring ours in more for our convenience than theirs!


In July Phil came over to shear as he has done for the last ten years or more. I love shearing. Phil says he’s getting slower every year but if that is so I’m folding the fleece slower too! Time was when he sheared a sheep as fast as I folded. Side to side, tail to head and into the “Woolsack“. Exactly as it has been done since the Middle Ages when wool was so valuable the Wool Churches were built. Now we get pennies from the Wool Marketing Board. Whiteface have thick fleece with a strong curl and the rams often have long straight wool under their “chin“, a once much favoured trait. “Junior” is no exception and has a very has a handsome beard. The average weight of a fleece is 12-16lbs. The woolsacks get very heavy!


By the end of the day we’re all exhausted and covered in sheep poo and lanolin. Stiff, too, from jumping up and down to clear the fleece from the shearers’ platform before the next sheep is brought out. The competition for the fastest shearer does not just stay at the agricultural shows. A shearer’s pride is his speed and dexterity wherever he‘s working and, boy, can they work fast!

The ewes seem so pleased to loose their heavy fleece, but once shorn they are unrecognisable to their lambs who rush round baaing anxiously at the wrong mother. Chaos reigns for a little while till everyone gets back into the field and works out who’s who without wool. The rams always look so undignified too, like city gents who have gone to work in just a hat.


Now all the sheep are separated. Weathers are finishing for meat. Young rams picked as potential sires graze quietly in one meadow while ewe lambs, away from their mothers in another, prepare for their future role. Meanwhile the old pros graze the orchard and build up their strength ready to meet Junior and start the whole cycle again.


And now I must tackle the garden. Tidying and clearing, harvesting and storing. And trying to harness all those ideas for next year! The sun is going down and at last I can hear the welcome distant roar of the combines gathering what they can of this years dismal, sodden harvest. Another blow for the farmers.

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