Spectator: Keeping fit the herd way

Lucy Baring is amazed at someone exercising the herd way.

It’s 10am on a sunny Sunday. I wander down the road to join what has been billed as the ‘annual sheep stampede’ and find two neighbours already in position at the first junction. I have no idea what to expect.

Far above us, on the ancient hills that circle a steep combe, the sheep are dotted, some in silhouette, beside the outline of an Iron Age hillfort. Behind it, the bank drops down to a drover’s lane that is so deeply cut into the side of the slope that anybody walking there is completely hidden.

Some have wondered whether this is the lane—almost a ditch —along which the Duke of Monmouth fled after the battle of Sedgemoor. It was almost certainly used by smugglers hiding the booty landed at Poole or Swanage. Even today, one can feel past lives when you walk there—thieves, murderers, poachers: all part of the landscape when it was used for moving livestock from farm to market.

The hills are ridged by centuries of sheep zig-zagging nimbly across them. And now, the sheep are on the move, each white dot connecting to another like iron filings being drawn together. They are driven by two dogs, a Land Rover and a very fit woman, who is running. The Land Rover seems perpendicular and, as we watch, my neighbour declares: ‘I’m glad I’m not in that.’ I agree—it looks worse than any fairground ride.

Drovers were among the most respected members of any farming community. To obtain a licence, they had to be over 30 and married. They were also well paid, earning double the amount of a labourer during harvest. Sheep, pigs, geese and turkeys were moved great distances in addition to cattle.

Recommended videos for you

Herds of swine were moved about six miles a day, their trotters sometimes protected by woollen boots with leather soles. I think about Susie, the obstinate pig we once owned and spent many hours moving from one half of a field to another, and can’t imagine 100 Susies, let alone fitting them with shoes. Geese were moved all over Britain, driven after the harvest so they could feed on stubble along the way. To protect their feet, they started by walking through a mixture of tar, sawdust grit and the odd oyster shell, which formed a pad on their webbed feet.

The hills around us, the lane we’re standing on, they’ve seen it all before. And then, into this bucolic daydream, an unlikely sight appears: a Lycra-clad police- man on a bicycle. He’s cycled the seven miles from our nearest station, where he’s the only officer, but tells us it may soon close. We cheer him up by telling him he can’t cycle up the hill because several hundred sheep are about to come down it and he turns his bike around, looking relieved.

And here they come, a river of sheep winding down the hill followed by the running woman and the shepherdess, who talks to the dogs all the time, using a language we don’t understand. Per- haps she’s shouting ‘heiptrw hw’, one of the oldest of human cries since droving began.

We must block the road, stop the sheep climbing the banks or entering gardens and steer them up the road to our right. I wonder whether my neighbours and I are a match for several hundred of them, but I needn’t have—the dogs have got it under control and Alfie makes a scramble along the bank to outflank some of the more wayward.

This journey is a lot shorter than those of the 19th century, when sheep were driven from Wiltshire to Norfolk or from Northumberland and the Scottish borders to the new hill farms of Exmoor. This flock is coming home, to be scanned before lambing begins in April, and the farmer is relieved—only one ewe has been left behind on the hill. He spends the next two hours retrieving her.

I ask: ‘Who’s that woman who ran up and down the hill behind the sheep?’ ‘She’s my fitness instructor,’ I’m told. ‘She does that for fun.’ A remarkable sight indeed.