16 February 1996


By Rebecca Austin

LACK of government funding is stifling the quality of shepherds managing UK flocks.

This is Mike Pearsons concern. He is sheep course tutor at Kirkley Hall College, Ponteland, Northumberland. Currently, it is the only county college running a comprehensive training course for potential shepherds where only 11 students are studying for the one-year advanced national certificate.

Originally 24 applied, but eight dropped out due to a lack of finance and under half receive council funding. Three terms of accommodation and tuition fees total £3000 a student. "Two of my students are funding themselves through student loans. For someone in their 20s to be doing that is frightening," says Mr Pearson.

"The problem is very few local councils are able to offer students discretionary awards toward further education, which only goes to national diploma level," he says. "It is hard enough for local students to manage even though they live at home and travel in daily."

Although tuition fees are paid by discretionary award toward further education, it is only mandatory for councils to assess parental income for higher education. Thereafter they can award discretionary grants for accommodation only if there is money left.

Compounding the problem is Mr Pearsons conviction there is a skill shortage within the sheep industry. "This week alone I have had two farmers phoning up looking to employ shepherds. There is a definite demand, but no one there, so those looking for a job should find one."

In fact over the past four years ex-students have consistently managed to gain employment within the field. The same scenario is apparent in shearing courses. Most shepherds are on craftsmen rates, with a majority of skilled shepherds receiving £10,000 to £12,000 a year, plus house.

Mr Pearson acknowledges that the problem has a direct effect on sheep welfare. "The number of sheep in the UK will not disappear so the farmer will still need to employ a shepherd if he doesnt do the work himself. However, he will want to employ the best person possible and that is increasingly someone who is poorly trained."

The course at Kirkley Hall, which is to be launched as the sheep industry training centre in May, covers sheep management, husbandry and production, grassland management, and beef management under the surmise most sheep farmers have cows. The applied science curriculum covers health, nutrition, anatomy, breeding, wool and meat aspects.

Over half the tuition is practically based with all students involved in the college farms lambing which involves 900 Mules on the 228ha (570-acre) lowland farm and 1100 Swaledale x Northumberland Blackface ewes on the 526ha (1315-acre) hill farm. Students are also obliged to carry out six more weeks of work experience; three weeks lambing a lowland, the rest on a hill farm.

"Somehow we need more money into further education. Whether it is allocated to the college or council is a political decision," says Mr Pearson. "We are struggling to find shepherds now when a managing flocks are in their mid-50s. Where will tomorrows shepherds come from?" &#42

Mike Pearson (left) with his students at Kirkley Hall Colleges farm. These youngsters are as good as guarenteed a job after leaving college as lack of government funds stems the number of students who can afford the tuition and therefore bridge the demand for trained shepherds.