Sheep on mound.jpg

You might have seen my piece, which should have been called: The History of Sheep, in the recent Professional Mountaineer. For some reason they have split the piece. Here it is, in full, for members only. Everyone one else will have to remain on tenterhooks (check the history of that term, it's related!). Though you'll have to wait to see all the sheep photographs too!

There aren’t many places in the UK where you can go walking and not be aware of the presence of, or the impact of, sheep. But what do we as walkers, climbers and mountaineers know about the only other sizable mammal to be found on our hills? In fact, sheep probably have a wider distribution than we do, they aren’t fussy, they’re as happy on a dull old moor as scaling the slopes of Snowdon or Scafell.

We love to work with the archaeology of sheep, we adore a good sheep fold as a navigational feature, we marvel at the collecting and sorting pens, we might curse the mountain wall one day, but we’ll be glad of it’s shelter on another day.  Our day out can be made special when we see sheep dogs at work on the hill. They cover acres of incredibly steep ground and the dogs here in Snowdonia work with little deference to their masters. They run and roam well beyond the reach of communications to chase down even the most errant of stray sheep. It’s a fantastic sight to behold. I remember bumping into a young lad on Cnicht, wearing jeans, wellies and carrying a shepherd’s crook. He was part of the gathering team and we joined him to watch the action below. Loud shouts in Welsh and with a few swear words in English; eagle eyes picking out the dogs; the sheep hurtling into pinch points to be collected and driven down to Nantmor. Sheep are an integral part of the British hills they’ve left a rich legacy of human built monuments and a cultural legacy amongst the farming community.

Most sheep are descended from the Mouflon, a wild grazer found in Mesopotamia, today this is Iraq and Syria. Initially they were bread for milk, meat and skins. The woolly sheep with which we are so familiar today were developed for their fleeces as long ago as 6000 BCE, they were then spread into Europe, Africa and eventually the rest of world through trading. In each place they arrived they were selectively bred to bring out the best qualities for survival in that area. It’s thought that sheep were brought to the British Isle by the Romans. By this time sheep were far removed from their wild cousins, there were many distinct breeds, and the British took to breeding sheep well. We developed lots of new breeds, their wool made life a lot more comfortable on our chilly wet islands and the wool trade grew to become the most significant trade in medieval times. As in Spain, wool wealth was a primary driver of our colonisation and empire building though simply generating the funds required for travel and conquest. Wool money built our churches and filled the pockets of our nobility, wool set the social dyes that remain today. Through the medieval period sheep rearing was a nation-wide activity. The uplands were worked by small scale farmers, but it wasn’t until the Industrial revolution that sheep farming came to dominate. Through the medieval period upland farms were small, poor and family run subsistent units, there might have been some sheep, but cattle, goats, and geese were more important.

Sheep have supported families and developed a folklore and history of their own, they have shaped our landscape and now we are asking questions. Are sheep really the demons of our uplands? Are they really the thing that impacts with the greatest adverse effect on our beautiful hills? Well, they might be, but you might also be surprised to know it’s not really the fault of our hill farmers.

Yes, sheep are responsible for the state of our uplands. They over grazed, they are of reduced biodiversity and this needs to change. But farmers are victims of the system. They have tried to make it work and many are conscious of skills lost over generations and that nature has suffered alongside the intensification of grazing.  We should also note that it is the farming families that get involved in community institutions; they run the shows and fetes, they volunteer to be councillors or school governors, they are the ones who’ll tidy up around the war memorial, they’ll clear the vegetation around the village sign, they’ll loan their trailers and they’ll help each other and anyone living in their village. The farming community and all its associations lays like a blanket over our uplands, a ‘blanket’ upon which we play out our games, a blanket upon which some of us make a living.

There is some unease today about the sustainability of sheep on our uplands. They eat a lot, and they eat the best bits. Sheep are known as ‘patch’ grazers and they love the shoots of heather, bilberry, rowan, saxifrages and most of the other flowing plants too. They do, by their selective grazing habit denude the hill and reduce its biodiversity. They don’t touch the mat-grass, except maybe when it’s young, fresh and green, so this straw-coloured deciduous grass takes over the landscape, as it dies off in the autumn its fallen stems form mats along the ground, mats which stifle the growth of other species. Other unpopular grasses are the purple moor grass, this forms the dreaded tussocks, and the damp loving soft rush, fine for a tale about rush wicks but not a great plant for birds, insects or walking through. Sheep won’t touch bracken, they’ll nibble around it but, unlike cattle, they don’t trample it and they are wise enough not to eat it.

It was wool which ushered in the Industrial Age. When John Kay invented the flying shuttle to make wider cloth more efficiently, he could not have dreamt of the new world his invention would lead to. Once the flying shuttle was invented other improvements in the manufacturing of cloth followed, these culminated the great woollen mills of west Yorkshire, plenty of these are still standing today as magnificent monuments to the industrial era some, even still, continue to manufacture wool products. The industrialisation of the woollen industry led to great changes, instead of subsistence farming on the hills flocks of sheep were turned out, the people left the uplands to seek work in mills, factories, mines and quarries. Some didn’t leave by choice; they were ousted from many of the large estates in Scotland to make way for sheep.

Those people who inhabited our uplands before the Industrial period, farmed them quite intensively, the tree cover was largely gone by this time, but they didn’t farm on an industrial scale, farms were mixed and nature still had a part to play. This changed gradually as specialized sheep faming took over. But, even so for may years sheep farming wasn’t the intensive business it has become today. There were many, many small farms, all making a living, all working for the ‘wool cheque’. Change came post World War II when subsidies to farmers for food production intensified and modernised farming like never before, not even in the agricultural revolution of the 17th Century. The subsidies implemented in post-war Britain to decrease our reliance on imported food led to a growth in flock sizes. This was exacerbated in the 1970’s as we joined the European Economic Community and sheep numbers grew fast through the 1970’s, 80’s and into the 90’s before starting to decline a little.

Sheep numbers on the hill increased as subsidies were paid per head of stock. Blaen y Nant a farm in the upper Nant Francon, a farm which encompasses Cwm Idwal had over 1300 sheep in the 1970’s, today, due to the development of environmental subsidies, it has 300. Farmers were simply taken along on a Government led journey, many did well. Lowland farmers with arable land or dairying did very well. The upland farmers always struggled though, it was hand to mouth or more correctly hand to wool cheque. In some lower areas, or even just the hilly areas around the mountains, the land, whilst not good for crops, was also good for sheep. In these areas larger, fatter, meatier sheep could be bred. The fells of Lakeland and the mountains of Scotland and Wales have very little of this ‘good’ land. The upland farmers here always needed to take their sheep off the hills for fattening and send them out to lower more fertile land on other farms, this hits the profits hard. There’s no doubt today that the Governmental direct payments to farmers is all that keeps our upland farms going.

Readers of this magazine might be somewhat concerned about the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, but one of the most obvious benefits to ‘taking back control’ is the potential for agriculture to be funded in a new way. A system that is focussed on public good, and we would interpret public good as being kind to the environment and supportive of nature, is proposed.  It remains to be seen however, especially as agricultural policy is devolved the four home nations, how this might pan out in reality. We can only hope that ways can be found within this new funding regime that might help to return some biodiversity to large parts of our uplands, whilst retaining viable rural communities. To think the Lake District, the Pennines and the hill of Wales can all be ‘rewilded’, is probably a but fanciful, sure we need some areas to be as rewilded as possible, and this is being modelled, particularly in Scotland, but we need everywhere to be farming in a more nature friendly manner. The next story in the chapter of a history of sheep will be an interesting and fascinating one.

Where do we fit in? As a major group of users of the uplands, we as climbers, hillwalkers, mountaineers and boulderers need to make ourselves much more aware of what has gone before and seek ways to influence what might come. We love these places, we see them kempt and unkempt, we see them wild and we see them tamed. We should develop opinions of our own. We need to engage with farmers and land managers, with conservationists and activists, with politicians, both locally and nationally.  We need to find a way of increasing the biodiversity of the uplands, for all our sakes, but we also need to protect the families, the culture and traditions of the upland farming communities. In a way it’s easy to see where a farmer might stand in such a discussion, it’s easy to see where a conservationist might stand in such a discussion; Where do we stand? How can we know where to stand without gaining more knowledge of the uplands, the way they are manged and what choices we might have for their future? Whilst not all published, so far, I hear little mention of walking and climbing being a part of the future agricultural policy, I see little opportunity for us to comment on the way ‘our’ land is used.  Should we be more involved? Should we be seeking greater representation? Should we be forming our own opinions? Should we be simply setting out what we’d like to see, and what might that be? Oh, and keep your dog under control please…



Leadership for Mountain Leaders, a few top tips on leadership

Leadership skills are what puts the Leader into the Mountain Leader Qualification. The whole point of the qualification is that you gain some training, some experience and are then assessed as being qualified to lead other people in the hills. It is tricky to define what we mean by leadership; it can be tricky to teach it and just as tricky to assess it. What I’d like to do in this article is get you thinking about the key elements of leadership when leading in the mountains, just a few ‘top-tips’ to get you thinking along the right lines.

An internet search on leadership will take you down all sort of avenues, many of them are worth following and pretty much all of them will throw up some gems of knowledge and practice.

A reoccurring key theme from leadership theories is that having a clear vision, sharing that vision then supporting your team to help you achieve that vision is a key aspect of leading.

A leader needs to know where they are going; literally – vision. This sounds very simple, for as a mountain leader we usually have a plan. You will be encouraged on your mountain leader training course to have an open plan. You aim should be clear about the objectives for the day and why they are set as such. But, it’s wise early on to raise issues around why you and the group may not achieve the plan. There are variables outside of your grasp. The weather can change, the group could be stronger or weaker than you thought, someone could develop an injury, or exaggerate a previous injury, you could come across another group that needs help. It’s well worth framing your objectives in an open way. For example, today we will walk up Snowdon. However, if the weather deteriorates here are some locations that will make an alternative ‘summit’ for our day. This could be the Halfway House or may be Llyn Glaslyn, for example. Our plan is to ascend by this route and return by this route, if however, it turns out we are all fit and strong we can actually lengthen our day and add in the ascent of this peak too e.g. Y Lliwedd or Carnedd Ugain. You might want to flag up the fact that Snowdon is busy, and that you, as an experienced and qualified mountain leader, and being someone first aid qualified, will be morally bound to help anyone who has had an accident and that you look forward to help from the group should that unfortunate circumstance arrive.

So, vision isn’t straightforward. Yes, it’s all about the summit but…

So, what does a mountain leader need to do to work towards achieving the vision?

To achieve your goals(vision) for the day you will need to inspire your team. They will feel happier if you ‘look’ like a mountain leader, you walk like a mountain leader and you talk with knowledge about the place you are in.

 The mountain leader needs to be the one who looks like she knows what she is doing. She needs to ‘look the part’ and play the part. She needs to be on time, equipped, organised ready to care for and inspire the group she is about to lead. Leadership is often, simply about inspiring confidence in the group of people you are with. There are many models of leadership and each model will have different components. Some of the individual themes within the models will dominate at different times to others.

You may need to model these skills, you will need to talk about kit, talk about clothing, recommend items, check the groups items, maybe even show them some of the extras you have, let them know you have spare hats and gloves (maybe keep the sweets secret for a while through!). Over your years of hillwalking you will have developed a fairly slow, methodical plod aimed at energy conservation for the long day ahead. You’ll often find your groups set off pretty sharpish and you are, very quickly, the one at the back. Slow them down, talk about foot placement, try ask them to walk silently, this will help them place their feet more carefully. Show them how to push up with the thigh rather than bounce on their toes, these things will be repaid later in the day. Don’t overdo the enviro knowledge, don’t throw out a list of facts. Do try to tell stories, look out for a house platform, or even just an old drystone wall, try to get the group to think about who built the wall, when they built it, why they built it. You might then share some knowledge on what is growing here, how people might have used plants, how modern recreation and farming has affected the vegetation. As the day progresses a conversation about land use choices, about care for the uplands, about the future of our hills should be all part of the day, and you should have some knowledge.

A massive part of being a mountain leader is showing individual care. Take time to learn the names of your group, if you find this difficult come up with some games or bits of information to hang the names on. I always write the names down and add something about the person next to the name, even if it’s just where they come from. Once you’ve got the group of names you can then learn to allocate them correctly. Have a laugh, make connections, constantly use the name to embed it in your brain. There will be times when it’s very important. You may need to switch into autocratic leader mode and be very directive when calling someone back from an edge. Using a name works so much better than “oi you”. There may be times when some has gone quiet and isn’t looking so well, using their name to ask how they are will elicit a better response than having to re-ask their name again, its shows you know who they are and helps to understand that you do actually care about them. Caring about people starts with knowing who they are. As you learn who they are and how they respond you can become more laisse-faire for sections of the walk, “OK you two go as fast as you like on the next bit, but wait at this point”, or “ go ahead, but don’t go out of site” or go on ahead and “buy me a cup of tea in the Halfway House café”. Learning names puts  different slant on group sizes and ratios, how many names can you learn and remember in record time?

Whilst the much quoted rule of only go as fast as the slowest member of the party is well meaning there are definitely times when you want to step things up a bit, if you know your group you have a better chance of doing this. Likewise, as it comes dark, you might want to slow the group down, accept you will be late, inform someone at your destination and take your time when you are tired and it’s dark to avoid any potential mishaps. Your group members do need the bigger picture of the day. They have to learn how to time themselves, how hard it really will be and how long they will be walking for. Sharing your timings based on Naismith’s rule adapted to your group is a really powerful tool. Rather than them asking you ‘how much further is it’ you can ask them, get them to take ownership of the timings. If you know a route well, you can set targets and suggest it would be good to be at such and such a point by such and such a time.

On the journey you should watch your group carefully. You should check their feet are OK. Ask them specific questions and look for hesitation in their answers. If you ask them “Are your feet OK?” most people will say yes. Ask about big toes, little toes, the balls of the feet and especially about heel lift. It’s much better to get some strapping on a tender part of the foot before a blister has formed rather than trying to protect a blister on the hill.

Check what people have had to eat. Some people choose not to eat breakfast, some people may have had a poor night before the expedition; what are you dealing with? Be prepared to have to stop early to feed people. Encourage people to eat and drink, always assuming you checked that they had brought some food with them in the first place!

Look out for people being cold or hot. Too cold is something we are very used to, but today there are people, and they may be in your group, who don’t really know what cold feels like. Look at their hands; do they need gloves? Look at their faces; do they need a hat. Do they even know how to operate their hood? Other items tricky to operate and use correctly are rucksacks, these often require some adjustment. Remember, you are the leader, you are their carer, you are the one who can make a difference.

We do have a few days each year where it is actually quite hot. This can really catch people out. Maybe they are wearing short trousers, short sleeved shits and a baseball cap, in their minds, dressed for the weather. But the sun will burn those legs, burn those arms and destroy that neck. Encourage people to cover up, a drying wind can harm in an unseen way, get them to slap on that sunscreen and encourage them to drink water. I have come across groups who have not drunk enough water because they have been worried about going to the toilet. I’m sure you will have encouraged people to go to the loo before embarking on the hill walk, but don’t avoid this subject, it is important, encourage them to go if they need to and encourage good practice in toileting.

All these things are just little ways of showing the group you care about them, that you are interested in them, that you want to be here. To be a successful mountain leader you need at least as much interest, if not more, in the people you are leading as the places you are leading in. This means you will need to listen to them not just talk at/to them. Listen, guide, coax, cajole. Inspire, but don’t dominate. Vary your approach. And remember, you may have done this walk a hundred times, but for your group it is the first time, it is an exciting voyage of discovery. Your enthusiasm for their achievements and the place in which they are achieving should be unwavering.

I’ve tried to stay formal clear of ‘models’ of leadership here and focus more on practical top-tips, but I do recommend you search out the Mountain Training Workshops on Leadership for Mountain Leaders. You will have some really good thought-provoking conversations, or, at the very least, pick up some more top tips! Leadership really is the key element to being a mountain leader. Obviously your navigational and other skills are all part of this, but your ability to connect with and support your groups to achieve a shared goal is paramount and must never be underestimated.