The Jubilee in Nidderdale
Edward Gifford

It’s June and stood in the yard I am glad of the fleece underneath my waxed coat; the sky is leaden grey, the wind whistles down the dale and there is no place to hide. We pack up the trailer with hurdles, a generator, the toolbox containing oil and clippers and wrenches. Loaded up we pull leftward out of the yard and head first along the dale bottom. His pickup truck betrays the signs of the modern farmer, Mars bars littered among feed schedules and veterinary prescriptions; the one-man army. The caravaners do a double take as we rattle past, as if noticing, for the first time, that there were people who worked to maintain the land beyond their plasticine Eden. Puzzled perhaps by the absence of flat caps (they are on the back seat) but more so by the lack of a Land Rover. What used to be Defender territory is now populated mainly by Ford, VW, Mitsubishi, and Toyota; the leather upholstery and walnut trim of the new Land Rovers stays in the valleys, towing caravans and lining well-to-do Harrogate avenues.
  Beyond the campsites, we cross a cobbled bridge on through Pateley. The high street is bedecked in red, white, and blue; homemade daisy-chains wreath the door of Kendall’s, the butcher. Day tourists are paying more attention to the show the town is putting on for Her 70th year and not minding themselves on the narrow pavement. A pair with painted faces and conical hats leap out. We brake hard and the trailer shudders. There is a look of surprise on their faces, rather than apology, so we trundle on, laughing quietly.

Through the melee, the tourists thin out and we turn up towards Wath, headed for the thirty or so rented upland acres. The Sportsman’s Arms has a special ale on, Royal Salute, we see it chalked on the board to catch the walkers and cyclists. Others in the hamlet, living in hardy gritstone cottages, have joined in too, with fresh eggs and special jams left out beside an honesty box and a flag.

On and on, up and up, we pull up to a gateway. I jump out whilst he manoeuvres the truck; clambering in again we cautiously drive round the edge of the field to a far gate. Here there is some hardstanding and we unpack the trailer on to it. Setting up the hurdles into a funnel and then two pens beyond.

He passes me a shepherd’s crook and I notice the swollen forearm, a swarm of bees, he tells me, trying to catch the queen. Secretly quite pleased at this sign of trust, otherwise a taciturn pair, I inspect the crook carefully as he explains how it was made. ‘Take a tups’ horn and heat it with steam, then clamp and crimp it. It is hollow you see so it will roll and take the shape I give it.’ His is accented by a ring of deep black buffalo horn; mine has a woman’s name carved along the top–I ponder but do not ask. 
Crook in hand I follow as he bounds straight off up the steep sided dale. We are looking for nineteen yowes (ewes) and their thirty lambs. They need to be driven off of the top, down through the three adjoining fields, into the pens we have built next to the trailer; the lambs are to be jabbed and wormed, the yowes sheared, wormed and sprayed. Grey faced Dartmoor’s do not run as a flock as mules or texels do, they dawdle and wait and come back on you. Without a dog the extended arm of the crook alongside whistles and phrases of an ancient upland dialect are essential if any progress is to be made. Running along the edge, the sheep below to my left, I am guarding against the possibility of them turning and heading updale again, as he drives them. The going is much easier on the way down, yet we are still panting once the last one is penned.

We pause for a moment. Echoing peals of distant bells run along the valley and the smell of diesel fumes mix with wild garlic; the lanolin grease on my palms from dividing the lambs and yowes is pliable like a thin layer of warm candle wax. Looking over the softly bleating sheep, their coats remind me of the greyed strands of a mop; quite straggly but handsome, the hair hanging in flat tufts. The nose is brown, as if each of them when a lamb had dipped theirs in a pot of brown paint and then sneezed, splattering it around their snout. These lambs grow slowly, much slower than the Australian and New Zealand meat, both because of their breed and because the farmer keeps them with their mother pretty much until they have weaned themselves. His fields are not sprayed, they eat nothing but grass, and drink milk, supplemented by organic feed blocks.

I load the shorn fleeces into bags destined for the Wool Board, packing them into the corners four to a layer; they are to be sold but the pittance paid does not cover even a day’s expenses. Upland farmers are expected to turn out a loss of over £165 per hectare, even with subsidy they will still be down £28 this coming year.

He tells me that this rare breed flock is to be cut back, they are a hobby and the farm needs to make ends meet; the meat market has been flung open by fancy trade deals made up in Whitehall and he has to keep afloat. It means nothing to them, he opines, that his meat and his wool is better, native and sustainable.
  The tattoos on his arms speak of a former life, perhaps one left with the rush of the city; the discolouration on his left ring finger tells of a former love; the ripped trousers of a long working day. And though he will not rest for the Jubilee, his contribution will be taken down from the hills straight to jubilant tables. ‘I don’t particularly care what obstacles the London bureaucrats write down or what people fail to realise as they pick their packaged meat in a sterile supermarket’ he explains.

Chargé d'affaires - Depuis 2020