Counting Sheep

First of all, 4Word would like to wish everyone a very happy, if somewhat belated, New Year. Christmas and Hogmanay are a distant memory now and the alcohol-free season of diets and veganuary is well under way to help us atone for the sins of the festive flesh. Here, the weather has turned distinctly wintry. Having been milder, wetter and windier than normal in the run up to Christmas, we are now numbed by frost and freezing fog.

In the fields which surround the house, the pasture is sodden, rimed prettily with ice, and the cattle have been put inside for the winter. However, in the largest field, where a crop of winter turnips were growing, a flock of Welsh Black sheep are free ranging, nibbling and munching upon the small, bullet hard brassicas.  They’re a hardy breed, small and compact, more used to the biting cold of Welsh hillsides than the, usually, more temperate climes of Dorset. Unlike their downland cousins, reared among soft, southern grasslands who regularly feel the sun on their fleecy backs, they don’t make an art form of dying and will lamb down without much intervention from humans. Despite these admirable qualities, they have one huge downside – they are the sheep equivalent of Houdini. Show them a field as secure as Colditz and they will find a hole, a gap, a keyhole of space to escape because the grass on the roadside verges is always, always, more appealing than a whole field full of lush pasture. Let alone icy turnips. They simply laugh in the face of any and every electric fencing system, sheep wire, thorny hedging or Dorset mixed thicket.

As a result, it has become routine for folk to knock on our door at all times of the day and night, to inform us that ‘our’ sheep are milling about in the lane, an accident waiting to happen. Phone-calls and texts to the farmer, subletting the land to the shepherd, usually result in a prompt response and they are rounded up and put back, fencing and hedging inspected closely and any re-barricaded – only for them to resume their escapology antics the next day.

Many years ago, I bought a small flock of the little black perils because I thought they’d be good for training up my collie puppy – being smaller and more manageable than my sturdy, stubborn Herdwicks. I thought they’d give him an easier grounding in the basics before presenting him with sheep who were happy to face down anything but the most confident and experienced working dog.  I got rid of them a few months later as they simply refused to stay put, despite layers of sheep wire, hawthorn etc. I was forever receiving telephone calls asking me if I was ‘the lady with the little black sheep’ and ‘did I know they were causing a rush hour traffic jam in the lane.’  I don’t know what caused more traffic chaos, my jay-walking (jay-browsing?) sheep or the sight of me in my dressing gown and wellies, hair like a hedge, brandishing a bucket of sheep-nuts, like some punk, alternative to Bo-Peep. 

The dog, having cut his teeth (not literally!) on the Welsh Blacks, seemed relieved when confronted with a craggy Herdwick tup, stamping a foot and brandishing his magnificent, curled horns in defiance. Rather than wondering how to round up an explosion of small, skittish sheep careering every which way, leaping over him and each other, he seemed to instinctively know how to face down the big tup and gain the upper hand. And, since Herdwicks are hefted, they never tried to leave the boundaries of the farm, saving me (and local motorists) much angst and embarrassment.

I wrote many poems around and about the fifteen years we farmed and had two of my first, and most major, competition wins at that time. One poem, The Herdwick Tup, was a winner of the BBC Wildlife Magazine Poet of the Year award and my series of four sonnets, Songs For Lesser Gods, about the aftermath of foot and mouth, won the Trewithen Prize. This series has now been accepted for the forthcoming Culture Matters anthology, edited by two incredible poets, Jane Burn and Fran Lock. Do keep an eye out for the launches of this anthology, which includes the work of many wonderful poets and promises to be a gem.

Speaking of which – our next poet in the 4Word family is Duncan Chambers, whose exceptional pamphlet ‘Sleeping Through the Moon Landing’ is due to be launched on 1st February. It is currently available for pre-order from http://www.4word.org/titles/  All our other titles, including Sue Kindon’s recently published ‘Outside, the Box’ (see here for a fantastic review by Pauline Kirk http://www.4word.org/reviews/) are available on the same link.

Finally, keep your eyes peeled for details of a 4Word event which will be taking place at Deborah Alma’s Poetry Pharmacy on July 12th. This should be an exciting afternoon, featuring almost all the 4Word poets. More later, for now I’m off to count sheep.

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