Sheep are quite important in these parts really. Without them the fells would be forested below six hundred metres, there would be none of the field barns for which the area is noted to convert to holiday cottages with gravel drives and satellite dishes and there would be no local pubs named for the patron saint of wool workers whose feast day is just around the corner on the third of February. What’s more, before the snowdrops come up, before the migratory birds return, before easter eggs appear on supermarket shelves, before satnav following caravanners start getting stuck down dead ends, lambing, whilst the snow is still on the ground and the day is still over before teatime, is the reminder that winter has properly turned the corner, things are heading in the right direction, and we won’t all have to go vegetarian for at least another year. As well as jumpers, cheese and a National Park logo then sheep give us the most tail wagging and gambolling of all the little reassurances of the dark months that the world is still turning and the sun is coming.
As the sight, sound and aroma of sheep is something we take so much for granted in the land of the Pennines many people are surprised to learn that although the woolly creatures played such an important part in our past; shaping our landscape through the enclosures (the common folk were turfed off the land south of the border too) and our towns through the grand merchants’ houses of the same Georgian era sheep had all but vanished from the Dales by the nineteen sixties as synthetic fabrics and the contraceptive pill caused the products and services they provided, for so long indispensible to country folk, to be needed no more. The thriving sheep population of today is in fact entirely descended from those which escaped during Martin Scorsese’s filming of All Creatures Great and Small in the late seventies, the method acting of the time causing many of the starring sheep, spending so many hours in a muddy field under the pouring rain with Christopher Timothy’s arm up their jacksie, to fail to find a satisfactory answer the question of what’s my motivation, Marty?
Although sheep might be seen as a wee bit of a hazard to humans on bikes by some a little knowledge of their ways goes a long way. If there are a ewe and a lamb on opposite sides of the road, for example, you know that one of them is going to cross the road at the sight of your approach, if it’s getting late in the day you know that sheep have a tendency to gravitate towards the tarmac from their preferred mileu of grass because of the heat radiated by the surface as the evening air cools, you know not to look too smug when you glide over the cattle grid because that really pisses them off and if you don’t know you soon find out that just because they have horns that look like drop handlebars that doesn’t mean they like it if you try and ride them. The best way of getting along with sheep however is to borrow from the old farmers’ trick of pairing up a ewe that’s lost her lamb to a lamb that’s lost his mother by wrapping the orphan in the fleece of it’s departed cousin and wear lots of merino when out on the bike. This way the sheep just think you’re a relative from down under, will briefly look up and baa the sheep equivalent of g’day by way of trying to make you feel at home and carry on as before, allowing you to pass unhindered, as long as you don’t mention the cricket. So happy Australia day today, and happy Saint Blaise’s day week after next and if you know someone who works in wool then don’t forget to send them a carder.