A national organisation of experienced sheepdog handlers that could be co-ordinated to provide a pool of expertise for mass fell gathers of sheep flocks is desperately needed throughout the UK, says North Yorks freelance shepherd Bob Harland.
The proposed Fell Gatherers Association would be made up of a register of members with experience of gathering large numbers of sheep from hill and mountain grazings.
Hill farmers, many now working alone and often struggling to find enough labour to effectively gather big flocks, could tap into the pool of labour available through the association.
As part of his freelance shepherding Mr Harland gathers large flocks of sheep for five hill farmers on the North Yorks moors.
But he says many farmers are finding it difficult to locate enough skilled labour to undertake such gathers and he fears it’s a situation that will further undermine confidence in hill sheep farming.
“Quad bikes aren’t the answer. In many hill areas bikes can’t operate.
We’ve got a desperate shortage of young people coming into the hill farming sector and the labour needed to gather these big flocks just isn’t there any more,” says Mr Harland.
Large gathers of fell and mountain flocks, where farmers rely on outside help, are becoming a management headache on many hill farms.
Mr Harland says the inability of hill sheep producers to undertake this task several times a year – including lambing time, clipping and weaning – is already having an impact.
“Without teams of experienced men and dogs there’s no guarantee a gather will account for all the sheep.
There will be more welfare issues if sheep are left behind and any remaining animals left un-dipped pose a sheep scab risk.
“And if more older tenant farmers give up because they can’t manage sheep properly through a lack of labour for gathering, the heather that the conservation bodies are trying so hard to sustain will deteriorate through under-grazing,” says Mr Harland.
Lake District hill farmer and well known sheep dog handler Derek Scrimgeour from Keswick reckons there would be plenty of support for an organisation of fell gatherers.
“We’re fortunate in being able to gather our own fell flock but a lot of farmers are finding it difficult to get enough skilled labour to help with the gathers.
“If there was a pool of experienced sheep dog handlers that could provide this service I’m sure it would be well received by hill flock owners,” said Mr Scrimgeour.