The Farming Year in the Hills: Autumn

September, October, November

It was a dark overcast morning in late September. We got up well before dawn and went over to Tebay to rouse one of our son’s friends, who had said he would help us to collect and move the cattle. He got into the car creaking and yawning and we drove to the field.

It seemed at first as though all would go well. Our cows and calves were as usual lying in a small sub-group, a dark blob in the gloom, but well separated from the other beasts. We got them to their feet with care and walked them gently towards the gate, but just as Smithy opened it, one of the calves broke back, mooing. The cattle began to scatter, and we realised with sinking hearts that he was one of the other herd’s offspring. He had only just comprehended that, as his mother was not in this group, he was being abducted. Things rapidly disintegrated from that point.

We discovered as we panted up and down hill in their wake that the six acre field in which we had assumed our cattle were shut was in fact open at the top into a further twelve acre field - and that field was open into another twelve-acre - and that came down into the six-acre with the cattle yard, in which we had caught the cows for veterinary treatment in August. The whole group by now was moving at a canter and we had to run to keep them in sight, skirting bogs, jumping becks, shutting gates, feeling the long wet grass soak our socks, and unanimously swearing - when we had enough breath to do so. One and a half hours after our planned dawn departure, we sorted out the last calf, released the unwanted cattle back into the pasture, and let our own bunch out onto the road to walk the five miles home. (ref)

The cattle might stay out on their home pastures for another week or two depending on the amount of grass and the weather. Cattle do not seem to mind dry cold. But frost stops the grass growing, rain turns the ground into bog under heavy cloven hooves, and they soon get hungry, so they have to come indoors. It used to be thought that in medieval times all the cattle bar the breeding stock were slaughtered at Michaelmas, but it now seems that at least some of the calves and stirks were also brought indoors and fed.

Our Hereford bull was a problem boy. He was a very placid animal whom you could scratch and pat, but he was not taught to tie up as a stirk and by the time we bought him he was much too strong to start. Our little stalled byres did not have room for his bulk and anyway, we had no bars strong enough to tie him to. Consequently he lorded it, free-range, in our largest shed. He had a couple of heifers for company and amused himself through the winter by tossing his ten-foot wooden feed trough around, or building mounds of muck and bedding: digging into it with his hooves, or heaving it into place with his huge white head. He was frankly a nuisance indoors, but so mild mannered that one could not take offence at his antics. (ref)

swaledale ram with wide curling horns, black face and silver muzzle

The ewes and rams (tups) are separated in late summer to prevent early lambs being born in the following year. The ewes are separated from this year's lambs, and put into poor pasture for a while. This helps to dry off any milk they may still have. Later they are allowed onto better going once more, and this combined with the shortening day length brings them into condition for breeding.

Similarly with the tups, the daylength and some extra feeding help to get them into condition. The feeding also makes them keen to come to the shepherd, who will want to catch them and smear their chests with "raddle" - a coloured grease that is easily transferred from the tup onto the backs of the ewes. He will know which ewes have been served at what time by which tup. Then in the spring he will know roughly what lambs to expect and when.

In the hills, the lambs are not wanted too early - April is soon enough. Sheep have a 5 month gestation, so the tups are loosed in early November.

That was at the back end – always in November. The farmers used to bring their tups down and they used to bring tups from Swaledale and all over the place. They used to sell them and swop them, change the breeds and all that sort of thing… The Duke of Cumberland ... that was a pub and busy place because the pens were all round it… Stakes were driven into the ground to make squares. Right round the back of the Market Hall and the School Green was all covered with pens, and where the telephone box is now… and in front of the George, where the bay windows are, that was all pens. … It was just like mud. It just got tarmacked latterly – these past 30 years or so. You could stick a gavelock in and then work a hole and then bray a post in. They came from Swaledale and over that way – Reeth and all that way. They used to come in carts. Horse and cart and great side rails on. I can remember them … dozens of them there were. (Horace Wilson, retired joiner of Orton, recorded by John Falshaw in 1983; ref.)

The tup is singleminded in the autumn. Reproduction is the name of the game. Early on when they are all in bachelor confinement, he may batter another tup in rivalry, but once loosed with the flock he is absorbed in his job:

... stalking about the autumn's work, his lip
lecherously curled as he follows the ewes...