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Shepherds flock to college

Sheep-farming is a far cry from a country idyll, writes Kevin Berry

THERE is more to being a shepherd than an idyllic existence on the high hills - the romantic poets were way off the mark.

"It's no nine-to-five job," says Stephen Eddon, a student who intends to be a sheep farmer. "But there's a lot of satisfaction. When we were in the college farm's lambing shed we were up all night, for two nights, till seven in the morning. We were castrating, and worming and tagging them. You can't stop at five o'clock, but I wouldn't like to work in an office."

Fellow student Richard Bell agrees. "When you turn the lambs out into a field and you see them all together in the distance, that's when the effort pays off."

Stephen and Richard are in the first year of the three-year BTEC National Diploma in Agriculture at Askham Bryan College, near York. In their second year they will have a 12-month placement on a farm where they can try out what they have learned and pick up some farming wisdom.

"Gathering a flock is such a difficult task that a shepherd will try to do everything with them when he finally has them together," says Stephen. "Spray them for ticks, worm them, inject them, trim their feet and so on."

Farming might be having its problems, even the normally comfortable Phil of Archers fame is feeling the pinch, but the student intake on all of the farming-related courses at Askham Bryan remains steady. Half of the students are usually from farming families and half are from other walks of life. They are realists and the phrase "breaking even" punctuates their conversations.

"Farming is notoriously cyclical," explains Kevin Kendall, the head of agriculture. "Ups and downs but even in the up periods most sheep farmers are lucky to break even. Hill farmers cannot diversify, sheep and maybe a few suckler cows and that's it."

What do the students learn? Management skills, the many rules and regulations, efficient feeding and the detail of injections and care. Surprisingly Stephen Eddon, the son of a North Yorkshire farmer, did not know how to shear sheep until he arrived at Askham Bryan.

"I learned how as part of the course and it meant I could help my dad. He can't shear. He usually has to have a shearing contractor in and he holds the sheep for the contractor."

Askham Bryan College has its own farm and animals, including a flock of 140 ewes. Not surprisingly the farm is subject to agriculture's economic fluctuations. Farm manager Peter Nielson dispenses a mix of rough humour and lifetime wisdom.

He says: "The sheep is a difficult animal - her aim in life is to get to heaven as quickly as possible! I have a saying, if there's 131 sheep in a field and there's a snowdrift you can bet all 131 sheep will be in that snowdrift."

"A ewe that is about to give birth will not let you near her, she will even attack a dog, but if she's having difficulty with the birth she will let you help her. She knows."

Stephen takes me to see the college flock. The moment we walk towards the ewes they scatter, I walk slowly but they still scatter. We gradually move them to a corner pen. Grabbing one is a difficult job even for someone with Stephen's experience.

There are no dogs at Askham Bryan. The new shepherds will train their own dogs. Some of the skills to do this are handed down from fathers or gleaned from other shepherds but much more is learned when shepherd and dog get together.

Shepherd and dog are a team: the dog will not readily respond to another shepherd. Working with sheep is hugely enjoyable on a warm summer day. Foul winter weather seems a long way off and I'm not even thinking about struggling through shoulder-high snowdrifts.

"You can tell how well they are," says Stephen. "Even from a distance."

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