'Sheep-shifting really is exhausting work' - a week on a farm
Life & Style

'Sheep-shifting really is exhausting work' - a week on a farm

The New Year has arrived and with it brings a new set of challenges. In a four-part series, our roving reporter James Martin has resolved to take himself out of his comfort zone and try his hand at something new.

THIS isn’t an ordinary Tuesday morning. A deafening westerly gale blows against my well-padded boiler suit, as I edge my way between a flock of thousands of docile livestock who gawp at me as they squeeze through impossibly narrow gates.

OK, so it isn’t that much different than walking to the underground platform at Tooting Broadway at 8am in London during the mid-week rush hour.

But in fact I’m at Penmanshiel Farm in Scotland, near the Borders, approximately 17 miles north west of a wee place called Berwick.

It’s a bitterly cold, yet crisp early winter’s morning. The country air is fresh (it stinks of s****) and as day breaks, Alan, the farm manager, is barking orders incomprehensibly at me. His Scottish drawl is so deep I can’t make out a syllable of what he’s saying.

I’m trying my hand at sheep-dipping. An annual event where sheep get a full-bodied dunk into a vat of organophosphate – a toxic product, for humans, but not sheep.

The news of this hardly fills me with confidence. Apparently, the purpose of the dipping is to kill mites, lice and maggots on the sheep’s skin and in their fleece and – as my friend who owns the farm tells me – it’s the best control for something called Sheep Scab.

Wisely, I’m not trusted with the actual dipping process which involves face-shields, a carefully-positioned rake and the patience of a saint.

Instead I have two main tasks. First, I have to fill the pens with sheep – a complex operation involving a series of gates.

sheep farming2-n Sheep dipping proved to be harder than James imagined

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Once a couple of sheep get wind of your plan to pen them in, they spin  around – one following another – and dart back inside their original pens before you’ve have time to shut the gate, let alone call over one of the sheep dogs for back-up.

What the poor lambs made of a six and a half foot Honey Monster in a luminous boiler jacket lurching towards them with arms out is anyone’s guess.

Every so often, a sheep gets stuck halfway between two pens as I’m shutting the gate. The poor animal isn’t sure what to do and freezes in a blind panic, not unlike if you’ve ever tried to turn around at Waterloo station when the commuter mob is behind you.

At one point, I think, Alan orders me to grab the sheep by the tail, and to hurl the animals along the race. Evidently, my technique leaves a lot to be desired. All that goes through my head is: since when did sheep have tails?

My second task is to slide the sheep one-by-one into the dipper. It’s no mean feat either. They weigh an absolute tonne and I have to squeeze the rams single-file through turnstiles, down the race and (fingers crossed) into the dipper.

sheep farming3-n "The sheep-shifting seems to drag on for hours, it’s exhausting work"

Once in the drink, the sheep are flipped over onto their backs and dunked under the water to ensure they are completely covered. The idea being to ensure their fleece is completely covered so the dip penetrates to the skin where bugs nestle.

Most of the time I’m just wishing I was back in a warm office, where there’s hot tea; or thinking of how much I wished I was back in the heated village hall at Stenton where two nights before I’d enjoyed a great traditional Scottish ceilidh.

Snapping back to reality, the sheep-shifting seems to drag on for hours. It’s exhausting work. Eventually, it ends. The sheep are lead back out into the field by two small but commanding dogs.

So how did I get on all in all...a city dweller doing a real shift for a change? I ask my pal James Wyllie, who is also the boss of Ruchlaw Produce Co Ltd, where we are dipping.

“I think you did very well,” he says, before reminding me we’d only dipped 350-odd sheep – which is more like a half-day. Obviously.

“Apart from when you put your waterproof trousers under your boiler suit instead of over; and when you were pushing the sheep around like players in a rugby scrum,” my old pal jokes.

My personal highlight of the day?

Apart from the satisfying feeling that I’d actually earned the right to a calorie-filled lunch for a change, it must have been when one of the sheep quite literally sprang off four hooves, leaping over another sheep in a Disney-like scene as it forced its way to the front of the flock.

Needless to say... I had no trouble sleeping that night.