The hill shepherd: ‘I’m not sure where the shepherds of the future will come from’

Graham Oliver is proud of the profession handed to him by his grandfathers but with his children choosing different career paths, he doubts the future of shepherding. Tessa Waugh reports.

Graham Oliver hails from a respected Northumbrian shepherding family – both his grandfathers and three of his uncles were shepherds, plus his brother is one, too. ‘I was born at a time when shepherds’ sons became shepherds and farmer’s sons were guaranteed to farm,’ he observes with a smile. ‘Dad drove and Mum didn’t, so if we weren’t on a bike, we were in among the sheep. Everything at home was sheep-orientated and we began helping out as soon as we could.’

Indeed, one of Mr Oliver’s earliest memories involves one of the flock. ‘Dad had an old show ewe that we called the knocker, because she’d chase Stuart and me around the shed when we were dressing sheep [preparing them for shows or the sale ring],’ he recalls.

Having spent his life working on farms in the Borders, Mr Oliver is currently based on a farm near Wooler in the Cheviots. After 40 years in the job, he’s seen huge changes, the main one being that far fewer people are now involved in shepherding. ‘Thirty or so years ago, three men took care of the ground I look after now. Each man had 400 to 500 sheep and he’d walk around them. Now, we have quad bikes and one man looks after 1,500.


Hill Shepherd Graham Oliver in the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland, England. Pictures by Richard Cannon on 15th July 2018

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‘Previous generations had nothing on the medicine side – my grandfather used to talk about dosing hogs (year-old sheep) with diluted pig muck, but I don’t think sheep are healthier now, or bigger.’

Mr Oliver feels that the future of his profession is uncertain and, indeed, his three children have taken different career paths, although they enjoy helping their father when they can. ‘In the past, family reputation got us jobs, but there aren’tas many following on,’ he notes. ‘I’m not sure where the shepherds of the future will come from.’