Dartmoor Sheep: A Close Encounter…
Just a short while ago – Tom and I, set off with the intention of spending an easy afternoon exploring the Autumnal delights of Coffin Wood. A curious place that is strangely still, apart from the occasional ‘krar krar’ of a Jay – and where there is always a feeling that someone somewhere is watching your every step.
We parked at Lanehead car park and walked back along the narrow road to Higher Willsworthy where we picked up the ‘Lych Way’ – or ‘Way of the Dead’ as it is sometimes called. A familiar area to us – as we have completed the whole route of the ‘Lych Way’ – from Bellever to Lydford – several times. The Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team Plymouth – organise several walks throughout the year to raise funds – and we have been keen participators. Their events are always a great day out on the moor.
As we dropped towards the valley – down the stony lane that leads to the bridge that spans the Tavy – we became increasingly aware of an advancing hullaballoo! Overhead, Rowan branches hung heavy with bunches of fat, ripe berries – and looking outward – we could see a ribbon of white, noisily snaking through the gorse and bright green scrub; a farmer was bringing his sheep in off the moor.
At this point we weren’t sure of the direction the drift would take – but as we continued down towards the bridge – the noise increased tenfold and we were greeted by a seemingly endless column of very nervous black faced sheep! Despite lots of encouragement from the farmer, who was hidden from our sight at the rear, the herd had reached a complete standstill – they had dug their cloven heels in and were not budging an inch. They were frightened of us – and I have to admit, we were a bit nervous of them in such an enclosed space. We were on the horns of a dilemma – what should we do?
One option was for us to go back from whence we came – but with the farmer in earshot, sounding increasingly frustrated – willing his sheep to move forward – we opted to swiftly get out of their way with a quick leg up onto the top of the dry stone wall. Once up there – we found our emergency perch to be a little unsteady, while on the other side, there was an alarming drop to the Tavy! The slightest shift in our position caused the top stones to wobble – hence it was imperative to sit completely still on all counts, and quietly watch as the sheep nervously began to inch forward until they were almost level with us. Suddenly, with a fit and a spurt, and a flurry of droppings – they took off! The stony path reverberated with the muffled clatter of multiple hooves as they nimbly sped up the lane as fast as their sturdy legs could carry them.
Eventually they all disappeared from view as they rounded the bend half-way up the lane – apart that is from one straggler; a lonely lamb with a limp. It reminded me of the lame boy in the Pied Piper of Hamelin who couldn’t keep up, it cut a sorry figure at the rear especially with its very long, fleecy tail dangling between its hind legs!
Not far behind, was a young girl astride a lively, pied pony; her mount was a bit skittish due to our presence in the narrow space – but the cool, young shepherdess kept control and eventually she persuaded her reluctant mount to walk on. Finally, there was one obstacle remaining; the farmer was blocking the bridge over the Tavy with his motorised mule! We marvelled as he negotiated his ‘made to measure’ quad-bike across the angular wooden structure with barely a centimetre to spare on either side!
After all that ovine excitement – Coffin Wood seemed extraordinarily quiet.
We spent a couple ‘lost’ hours there and about the area – before returning back up the lane to Higher Willsworthy.
On approaching the top gate – we found our way was blocked once more, only this time by a small number of sheep; the farmer was drenching them for parasites and checking them over. As we waited, so as not to interrupt his work – or upset the visibly anxious sheep, he told us that the male lambs had been separated from the ewes that afternoon.
Soon – the farmer’s work was done, the sheep were released from the sheepfold – and we were free to go…
On the last leg back to Lanehead car park – I stopped again. I wanted to capture the bejewelling effect of the dropping sun, as it highlighted the minutiae of a surprisingly verdant September hedge. It was also an opportunity for quiet reflection. Meanwhile, my headstrong, rapidly growing, and often impatient tup – hungry, and unimpressed by my introspective hedge gazing, went on ahead to unlock the car – where there was the promise of a packet of crisps waiting!
As I half watched him stride away from me – I couldn’t help but think how lucky we humans are not to suffer the brevity of time that sheep do. For us, the experience had been a memorable Dartmoor encounter – and because my man-sized son is still only thirteen years of age, there is the promise of many more shared adventures to look forward to. Whilst for the ewes and their not so big lambs – the experience had been a rite of passage; their time running together was done.
Headstone in Lydford Churchyard – the final destination of the ‘Lych Way’ route – it reads ‘Cutt by Samuel Vosper in Tavystock’ – ‘My glass is run.’