2 November 2001

Dogs life of beauty

It was pouring with rain just when we didnt want it. Everyone was fed up after months of form D restrictions and their financial consequences. Lamb and beef prices were sliding. Constant sniping at livestock farmers by government spin merchants was getting us down, and the lack of tourists was alarming.

It was against that background that I watched David Kennards video* The Year of the Working Sheepdog. And what a morale booster it was.

This 85-minute professionally made film records the relationship between David, his dogs, his sheep, the weather, and the landscape in spectacularly beautiful countryside on the Atlantic coast of north Devon. It brought home to me what a great story farming has to tell, and how it can be done in a way that will interest almost anyone.

With its professionally written script delivered by All Creatures Great and Small actor Christopher Timothy, the film combines a factual record of a years work on a sheep farm with shots of the landscape in all its seasons and the weather in all its moods.

There is plenty too for nature watchers – from seals in the sea to bluebells in the woods. And there are dramas such as when he sets two dogs to load a group of stroppy rams onto a trailer. It seems doubtful whether the dogs will succeed. Or is it all a set-up for our entertainment? That question also occurs at the point in the film where while on their shepherding rounds his old dog Greg alerts him to a ewe stuck on her back. Was it just an incident they encountered by chance while filming or did they set it up? Judge for yourself. Im still not sure.

Also shown are the many other jobs the sheep dog does – such as holding back the ewes while cake is put out or a silage bale lowered into the rack – and a glimpse of how young pups are trained. The film brought to mind a Cumbrian farmer Id heard a few days earlier. He was really worked up about the massive culling of hill sheep flocks including his own. He said they were the basis of a whole culture developed over a thousand years or more and it was being wiped out in a few days. At the time it seemed over the top. But after watching Davids video I decided the Cumbrian farmer was absolutely right. These are complex and delicate interactions which could so easily be upset by thoughtless desk-bound schemers.

The commentary notes that years ago a modest flock would provide a living. But now David doubts whether 900 is enough. So he looks for additional sources of income such as this film – though he also felt it would be a way to share with others the delights of his lifestyle and the area where he lives, and to show them the traditional shepherding skills so that they can decide whether the whole interwoven package is worth keeping.

David Kennard runs 900 ewes in coastal north Devon, 250 of them are run as a separate (organic) flock on the National Trusts Morte estate. His other ewes are on his own Burrough Farm a few miles away. JB

* The Year of the Working Sheepdog, narrated by Christopher Timothy, £12.99 plus £1.95 postage from farmers weekly Special Offers. To order telephone 01634 832238.