Farmers are no strangers to hilly terrain – but one shepherd in north Wales is fast becoming a star in the climbing world, as Sue Scott discovers.
Farming in the Welsh hills can be a precarious business at the best of times. So it’s just as well shepherd Ioan Doyle is good at hanging on by his fingertips – in fact, he relishes it, especially when there’s nothing but a 1,000ft sheer drop below.
“One slip and you die,” he says matter-of-factly of the sport that has put him on top of the world and given his mother Catrin sleepless nights since he first fell in love with extreme climbing, aged just 15.
Within a year he was being described as one of the best climbers of his generation and it wasn’t long before filmmaker and mountaineer Alun Hughes from the neighbouring valley came knocking on his door.
Ioan and Helen’s direct meat sales business Loved Lamb began when he insisted they stop to pick up an orphan lamb at the side of the road.
Florence became the foundation ewe for a flock that now runs to 50, primarily Welsh Mountain sheep, sired by a Southdown ram.
“Finding a field and other sheep to keep Florence company was basically our curveball into farming,” says Helen.
“It was a hobby that got a little out of hand.”
Hefted on the hills from April to October, the flock spends the rest of the year on rented pasture around Bethseda.
Helen divides her time between studying at Bangor University, farming and a part-time job while Ioan shepherds, shears and goes dry-stone walling.
Agreeing to a series of films was one way for the couple to finance their dream to go into farming full time.
For more information see Loved Lamb’s website
Hughes’ documentary Defaid A Dringo (The Climbing Shepherd) went on to win a string of awards for its breathtaking cinematography, but it was Ioan and his fiancée Helen Wise’s intrepid double act that stole the show and brought the commissioners, S4C TV, back for more.
The broadcaster is airing a six-part series following the ultimate highs and everyday lows in Year of the Shepherd: Ioan Doyle.
It gives an insight into the life of the couple, who have built up a flock over the past two years and launched a retail meat business, Loved Lamb.
“We’re new entrants so we don’t qualify yet for a subsidy and we’re toying with the idea of farming without it,” says Ioan.
“There’s a huge issue with farming being so heavily subsidised – we’d like to challenge the whole idea of it because something’s not working and it has to change. The client we sell to thinks about that sort of thing, too – it suits the niche we are trying to fit into.”
A self-confessed extremist, on a competence scale of one to 11, Ioan had reached grade eight B-plus in his sport in a remarkably short space of time, although, as he puts it: “I don’t think you can grade death”.
“I have a very addictive personality – back then it was climbing, now it’s sheep,” says Ioan as he recalls the bewitching power the hills held over him, growing up on his grandfather’s farm in the national park.
He joined a climbing club the moment he was old enough and was soon scurrying up rock faces as sure-footed as the Welsh mountain ewes he now breeds.
He turned down the chance of going to university so he could satisfy his head for heights, taking up dry stone walling and shepherding for a living with his ever-more challenging trips to the rooftops of the world sponsored by local equipment suppliers, DMM Wales.
“There is no one high point, no Mount Everest of a climb for me, there are thousands of them,” says Ioan.
“Mum respects the fact now that it makes me happy and the person I am. But when I go to Patagonia or the Alps or wherever, she doesn’t want to know about it any more.” Ioan Doyle
“But the largest concentration of climbs I’ve ever done is within a 10-mile radius of here, in Wales. Britain has the hardest rock climbing of the world in a very small area. The only thing that stops you is the weather.
“Mum respects the fact now that it makes me happy and the person I am. But when I go to Patagonia or the Alps or wherever, she doesn’t want to know about it any more. No news is good news as far as she’s concerned.”
The TV series was an excuse for the 23-year-old to make up some of the ground he’d lost following a difficult couple of years in which he seriously damaged a tendon and battled through one of the most crushing Welsh winters on record when thousands of ewes were buried alive in snow drifts that brought farming to a standstill. But being a celebrity has its drawbacks.
“We got used to the camera, but it was nice when it stopped,” admits Helen.
“Filming imposed on our life a lot and that was quite frustrating at times.”
Helen, 24, is a seven A-plus climber, which makes the confession that she doesn’t have a head for heights all the more extraordinary.
Originally from one of the flattest plains in Yorkshire, her climbing career began on a mock rock in an indoor centre. It was only when she arrived in Wales on a gap year that she truly fell in love with the mountains along with the shepherd who helped introduce them to her.
One of the toughest ascents for Helen was during the making of Defaid A Dringo when the pair scaled the appropriately named Fiesta de Los Biceps, a sheer, 300m orange stick of rock in Riglos, Spain.
It was here the camera caught the couple sharing a kiss, suspended between heaven and earth on an ascent that took every last ounce of her energy and concentration.
“It wasn’t the scariest climb I’d ever done, but it should have taken four hours and it took eight because we were being filmed. It was grim,” recalls Helen.
“Climbing is such a head game. Sometimes it’s best for me to go without Ioan because when he’s there I don’t push myself as hard because I know he can get me out of situations – he knows what I’m feeling. Essentially, climbing together builds up trust. It’s not something we even question now.”
During lambing season, it’s not unknown for Ioan to turn up to the local climbing wall for a practice session with an orphan in tow.
In the company of fellow climbers, his decision to attempt the Ogwen Crack at Nant Ffrancon, one of Snowdon’s most perilous routes, thought to have only been conquered once before, wasn’t considered crazy in the least – going into farming was.
“Farming suits us both as individuals,” says Ioan.
“We’re both driven people but in different ways. We’re opportunists. We’ve got to be flexible and make things happen for ourselves.
“I don’t think I could farm anything other than hills and mountains. Because I have such a strong connection with them, that’s what farming means to me.
“I don’t know of any other climbing shepherds, though,” he grins. “That’s my selling point.”
The Year of the Shepherd: Ioan Doyle can be seen on demand at s4c.co.uk/clic