I’m a volunteer shepherd. A couple of times a week, sometimes more, I’m on the Council’s rota to check the sheep on Tenantry Down at the top of Elm Grove, Sheepcote Valley between the racecourse and Woodingdean, and on Beacon Hill, high above Rottingdean where the windmill is. It’s called ‘Lookering’.
Sheep to the rescue!
Copywriting takes concentration and by the end of the day I’m in serious need of a change of scene. I’m at my desk at around half eight each morning and don’t usually finish work ’til four, sometimes later. At which point I’m all stiff and crunchy, bent into a sitting position. That’s why I love my Lookering work so much, checking the health, well being and safety of the Council’s conservation flock.
Conserving the natural downland environment
Brighton & Hove council’s sheep have an important job. 1000 or so of the little woolly buggers are dotted around numerous downland sites from autumn to late spring, tasked with eating the grass so wild flowers have the space they need to grow freely and thrive.
Thanks to the sheep – mainly hardy Cumbrian Herdwicks and a mixed breed of Scotch or North of England Mules and North Yorkshire Swaledales – the sites they graze are rich in chalkland wild flowers, countless species of rare and unusual plants, many of which are threatened through loss of habitat. Without our woolly friends’ sterling efforts the landscape would be nothing but a dense covering of scrubby gorse and blackberry bushes.
After a long day’s thinking, researching and typing, it’s a blessing to head outdoors and hoof it to the site I’m checking that day, out in the fresh air whatever the weather. I walk the perimeter to check the electric fence, measure the voltage and mend it if possible when it gets broken. I report dog attacks, cut sheep out of the brambles when they get themselves stuck, keep an eye open for limping and poorly sheep, listen for mass coughing and report everything back to the Ranger. And if someone has got themselves turned upside down, I turn them the right way up before they die of trapped wind. You couldn’t get further from sitting at a desk if you tried.
Having said all that, there are very few problems. Local people seem to enjoy the sheep being there. Most dog walkers and their dogs are perfectly well behaved, polite and interested. It’s a wonderfully peaceful task and the sheep themselves are a real pleasure, far from daft. After a while you recognise them as individuals and now it’s spring, they’re all skittish and excitable. Walk up to a bunch of them and they toss their heads and scatter, obviously playful. The Herdwicks are particularly endearing with their funny rabbity faces and chunky mountain-climbing legs. And oh, the scenery…
From the top of Tenantry Down you can see the city spread before you like a grey, misty jigsaw with roads curling intimately around the bosomy curves of hills and, on a clear day, the Isle of Wight in the far distance. Beacon Hill delivers splendid sea vistas to the south and endless downland to the north, folding greenly over the horizon. And Sheepcote Valley is a surprisingly large, remote-feeling, verdant chunk of land full of birds and insects. All accompanied by ozone-fragrant westerlies blowing straight off the sea.
After walking to the site, checking the sheep and walking home I’m back in shape again, refreshed by the soughing of the sea breeze – or the gales, depending on the time of year – and full of the delicious aromas of fresh sheep poop and sun-warmed or rain-sodden grass.
It’s the perfect solitary volunteering job for people like me who aren’t keen on ‘joining in’. And it’s a fantastic cause, helping to bringing the downland I love so much back to vibrant life and conserve the incredible variety of flora and fauna that live there.
Thank you, sheep!