if they have lambs when they’re shearlings,
if they’re going to live on the fells.
Not much of the thin wintery daylight filters through the half-open door, and the straw on the floor lends a glow to the place. The barn is chilly and has the aroma of sheep: grass, mud, lanolin. There are twenty, huddled in the corner, shuffling. Some bleat. Some grind their teeth. They are all shearlings (one-year old, having had one shear) and twinters (sheep that have seen two winters): not yet old enough to be put to a tup.
Anthony sits with his back against the wall and his legs astride a straw bale. Andrew, who has been helping Anthony on the farm for nineteen years now, ties a twinters’ legs together and heaves it up and onto the bale. The sheep’s tail is towards Anthony’s belly, its body is between his legs and its head lolls at the other end of the bale. A woolly weight of forty to fifty kilos with its tied legs pointing uselessly upwards.
A very small number of farmers in Cumbria and the Scottish borders clout their sheep, and Anthony is one of them. Typically, fell-going ewes are kept away from tups until their third year, when they will be strong enough to breed well. Not all farmers have sufficient land to keep the ewes and tups separate, something that is even harder when flocks from several farms share the same expanse of common land. In effect, a clout is a cloth chastity belt. It’s a management tool that works well and helps to keep the flock hardy, with strong bloodlines.
Anthony lifts a clout from the pile by his side, which I have arranged in order: it is the word ‘stitched’. When the clout is secure, he ties the wool in a tight knot and cuts it with an old pair of hand shears. He gently releases the sheep to the floor, and then works with the next one. I open the barn door and watch as ‘stitched’ trots away. Next comes ‘in the’. When three twinters are clouted, the poem begins to take a new shape in the misty air of the yard. ‘barn’s stitched’ and ‘in the half light’ come together.
Hilary joins us and it seems to be the perfect opportunity for the poem to find another expression. She steps outside, reading to the open air. Her reading is the first and last time the poem is spoken before it becomes dispersed.
Anthony lets his needle rest. We listen.
The poem drifts into the barn from the yard.
Hilary’s voice comes to us punctuated with a twinter’s bleat. Something settles in the atmosphere of the barn that feels new, gentle.
Anthony and Andrew have stopped moving. I find myself in a still-life image: men, sheep, barn, strip-light, wool, needle, boots, soft smiles. Even the parcel of sheep at the back of the barn has quietened. The words enter the barn into a scene that has been repeated over decades, and the pause in the flow of activity reminds me of those times on a gather when a farmer stands still on an outcrop to scan the land, an interlude between the action of running and shouting.
Herdwicks are drawn to higher land and these will not take long to walk themselves up to the exposed tops, each heading to its own favoured patch. They know their heaf (also known as a heft). A heaf is the extent of a flock’s grazing area, with unmarked boundaries where one flock buffers up against another, often on the ridge of a fell, or along a watercourse. More than this, a heaf includes a knowledge of the best spots for shelter and food on a certain area of the fell. Lambs learn their heaf from their mothers, and have been doing this on most commons for many generations. If a new flock is introduced, it is the gentle and determined effort of a farmer, walking the flock up and back repeatedly, that helps in the establishment of the heaf.
In Cumbria, which has the largest single area of upland common in Europe with swathes of shared grazing land free from walls and fences, the cooperative nature of farming depends on a balance of heafs. There are fewer commons with sheep on over winter than there used to be, as agri-environment schemes introduced since the 1990s have encouraged off-wintering to reduce grazing pressure. Anthony and his neighbours are among a small number of commoners who still have a significant number of sheep grazing on the open fell all year round.
Over winter, the grey Herdwicks and off-white Swaledales can be hard to see amidst washed out grass, crags, lichen covered rocks, snow patches and low cloud. The 350 clouted sheep, of which only twenty bear words, are part of the larger flock of over a thousand ewes, and will nudge up against sheep from other farms. They’ll not be easy to spot.
Three months later, after repeated visits to look for the poem sheep and not seeing a single one, we meet again to gather in all the ewes.
A curtain of hail sweeps away the view then sears my face, a wall of pins. There are two of us high on the flanks of White Pike, and two below, gathering in the sheep, in pockets of two and three, then ten, then twenty, thirty. A hundred. Parcels funnelled between outcrops and around the skirts of the fell. The dogs are fluid streaks on the land. The wind carries shepherds’ calls and dogs’ barks, and the sheep are carrying themselves into one large group, coaxed down from the common to the fell wall. They become a mass of grey and white, of head, horn and haunch, and we move behind them.
After three months on the fells we don’t know whether the words will have survived, but they begin to show themselves.
The first word we see is ‘caught’.
In a morning of just over three hours we gather about three hundred sheep and walk them down from the fell to the intakes. Over the next few days Anthony and Andrew and their dogs gather the remaining eight to nine hundred sheep and separate the clouted ewes from the others. Then we bring them together into the yard to remove the clouts.
The poem is a jostling of words in the midst of the wordless, a reconfiguration of thoughts after winter. Now and then, a half-seen phrase, moving. In groups of about twenty, the sheep are urged into a small pen where Andrew and I wait, penknives in hand.
We speak the words to one another as we see them, and then filter the poem sheep to one side, back into a half-lit barn.
Farmers make it look simple but holding a sheep is a practiced art, and doing something to them, with a knife, is a particular challenge. I begin, fumbling, unsure. The sheep reflects my unease and fights against me, breaking free of my feeble grip as if it were slippery as a fish. I persist, becoming more agitated, as is the sheep, and then my feet slip on the ground that’s wet with mud and urine. I fall with a hard-knee crash and bang my head on the wall.
I unravel myself from a crouch, take a few deep breaths, feel my feet grounded. I realise that the only way to do this is to calm down and take charge. My new attitude works. I grip the sheep with my fingers confidently gripping the thick fleece, and my legs strong against their flanks. I am squeezed into the small pen with and twenty sheep and we are all pressing against one another. I fall into synch with the sheep, keeping each one still and calm as I use the knife in my right hand to slice through the stitching around the clout. My feet are flat, my back bent, my face on the job and the scent of wet wool, urine and rain on the fell is strong. My immediate world is entirely sheep.
The clouds draw in and we put on waterproofs, pull our hoods up against a light rain. I make a note of the order of the poem as each poem sheep is spotted. Only nineteen of the twenty have come back: ‘in a’ is still out there.
The poem clouts, smelling of lanolin, shit and rain, rest in order of their removal. The poem has been to the fell, where it has been unnoticed, and it has returned changed but maintains its essence. It feels symbolic that its short life reflects the relative invisibility of the hard work of farmers in a land that’s treasured by so many.
The poem’s one-time spoken existence in the misted air outside the barn, and the journey of its words on the fells will fade into the past, a memory mixed with scent and rain and conversations, shared by just a few of us. The practices of lambing, gathering, tupping and clouting will be repeated and repeated, folded into a history that is still being laid down.
Harriet Fraser and Rob Fraser are taking part in Radical Landscapes: Innovation in Landscape and Language Art at The Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington, Devon from 23rd March to 22nd April 2019.
In support of the exhibition, The Learned Pig’s Spring 2019 editorial season is devoted to Radical Landscapes.