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SHEEP SAGAS


Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time on British or Irish hills has a few sheep stories. Our woolly friends are very good at climbing down but much less good at climbing back up again so often get stuck on ledges near the tops of cliffs. As climbers have the skills and equipment to get at them and farmers often don't you inevitably get drawn into rescues. You have to exercise a little cunning as sheep are often more scared of you than they are of the drop and are inclined to make a jump for it if given the chance. As a result it can sometimes be a precarious experience.


Sheep trying to get out of the wind, Peak District
Who'd be a sheep?

Two of us were climbing on Shepherd's Crag in Borrowdale one afternoon when we noticed a sheep stuck on a pair of ledges about 50 feet up. It had obviously been there a while as it had eaten or trampled all the grass on the ledges and was looking resigned to its fate. Brian set up a belay on the clifftop above it and threw the rope down. I tied on and climbed up to the lower ledge, and the sheep of course retreated to the upper one. The ledges were about 6 feet long and the sheep ran out to first one end then the other looking for an opportunity to jump and escape the approaching two legged monster. I did my best to keep between it and the drop but after three or four oscillations it thought it saw a gap and leapt for it. What it hadn't allowed for was that I have extendable things called arms sticking out from my shoulders, one of which I used to grab it. It had enough momentum to knock me off the ledge and what I expected to happen was our joint weight to come onto the rope and that we would maybe swing a bit. However all the jinking about had introduced a fair amount of slack and suddenly I was falling down the cliff with a sheep in my hand. I had time to think "oh shit, has the belay failed?" before I stopped and the sheep didn't. I was left holding a handful of fleece but luckily for the sheep we weren't too far off the ground by this stage. It was unhurt but had a large bald patch in the middle of its back. The psychological damage may have been more serious though as for the rest of the day any time it saw us it panicked – "I'm not getting sheared that way again".


Shepherd's Crag, Borrowdale
Shepherd's Crag. Photo copyright Shaun Ferguson, from www.geograph.org.uk. You can see the ledges just above the trees on the far left crag

A less traumatic and funnier incident was in an old quarry near Corris in southern Snowdonia. Dave and I were exploring it when we came across a ewe that had fallen into a funnel-shaped hollow with smooth sides. It was wedged into a hole in the bottom of the funnel and understandably distressed. We didn't have a rope with us and the sides were too steep and smooth to climb down, but we soon realised that we could get into the chamber underneath through a hole further down, the entrance partially blocked by a rockfall. Inside was a surreal sight. The sheep entirely filled the hole, all four legs paddling frantically in mid air above us. There was no way we could get it out upwards so the only option was down. Dave found a chunky pole and pushed the sheep from above while I drew the short straw and stood underneath it in the cavern to pull on its back legs and stop it landing on the spiky boulders that littered the floor. Eventually it came free and I had the delight of being landed on by a panicking sheep. I managed to hold on and prevent it bolting further into the cavern, where no doubt there were bigger holes. Between us we then managed to manouevre the ewe over the boulders in the rockfall to reach the outside world. It didn't seem grateful!


Corris, Snowdonia
Corris that morning, the quarry is just right of the telegraph pole

Another time I was scrambling up Strans Gill in Wharfedale when I heard a pitiful bleating coming from a small hole in the side of the gorge. Inside was a fairly small lamb which had fallen down a slot from the grass slope above. A nearby upset ewe was obviously the mother. The hole at the bottom was too small for the lamb to get out through and the inside was too slick for it to climb. I tried reaching down from the top but it retreated beyond my reach into the bottom of the slot. When I reached into the lower hole it scrabbled upwards beyond my grasp again but the two holes were too far apart for me to reach into both simultaneously. Two people would have solved the problem easily but there was nobody else around (and access to the gill was discouraged at the time so I wasn't going to ask the farmer). The solution was to use a branch lying in the gill and poke it into the bottom hole to scare the lamb upwards then ram the branch upwards to stop it sliding down again for long enough to let me grab it from above.


Crummackdale, Yorkshire Dales
A typical Yorkshire Dales limestone pavement - lots of slots to fall down!

Lambs are often more of a problem than adult sheep. For one thing they are more adventurous and less sensible so more likely to get into difficulties. For another they move faster and can squeeze through smaller gaps to get away from you. I had one particularly hazardous escapade on the edge of Gable Crag in the Lakes. There were multiple ledges not far from the top and the lamb was running between them, with a bigger step separating it from its mother on the fellside above. After several minutes of sprinting around in quite an exposed situation I got it into a position where I was able to dive into a rock corner and grab it with a rugby tackle. I got a round of applause from a group watching on the clifftop. At least once collared it was light enough for me to get it up to the top easily, where it was reunited with its mother.


Gable Crag, Great Gable
Gable Crag, I was at the top, just left of centre, having climbed Pinnacle Ridge

A rather different sort of sheep incident happened when I was staying at an outdoor centre in Ireland which had better remain nameless to protect the guilty. It was the last weekend before Christmas and party time. We were all divided into groups and had to put on playlets we were given, to be voted on by the audience. I was in with a bunch of divers and our play was Little Bo Peep. A young guy from the centre with blond curly hair was the obvious choice for the title character and someone found him a smock and a crook. The divers all had dry suits lined with white(-ish) fleece and worn inside out these produced some imitation sheep. There was one black-lined dry suit and I got to wear that and be the sheepdog. One of the divers then decided that our act needed livening up with something memorable and during the previous ensemble's act some of us sneaked out and kidnapped a real sheep from a nearby field. Once I'd done my scurrying around on all fours 'herding' my fluffy charges 'Little Bo Peep' came in with the real sheep on a lead. Herding it wasn't a success! It refrained from disgracing itself on the stage though and definitely stole the show. The next group refused to perform because they felt they couldn't compete and we were awarded the prize (beer if I remember rightly). For some years afterwards if I had to explain who I was locally I could just say "I was the sheepdog". We did return the sheep to its field afterwards, presumably to discuss its brief taste of stardom with its neighbours 😁.


Killary Harbour, Connemara
Near the outdoor centre in question

Sometimes you get to watch real sheepdogs in action, and it's impressive how neatly they can clear a hillside, winkling out sheep hiding in even the most obscure corners. On one occasion this provided us with a comedy though. We were looking out over the gorgeous beach at Camas Mor near Gairloch when a shepherd and his dog arrived on the hillside opposite, on which were scattered half a dozen sheep. The shepherd took position on a shelf above a small cliff and sent the dog racing off down to the beach. It obviously had more energy than he realised and went right under the sheep and all the way up a small gully on their far side. It was now on a shelf above the shepherd and out of his sight so he kept on issuing commands based on the assumption that it was below him. The dog completely ignored them, and you could see it thinking "That makes no sense, he doesn't really want me to do that". After a few minutes of nothing happening the shepherd finally realised where the dog was and got quite irate with it. I reckon the dog was brighter than the shepherd in this case!


Camas Mor, Rubha Reidh, Gairloch
Camas Mor, Gairloch

In certain tourist hot spots sheep can get quite aggressive once they see people as a source of food. I remember as a small child on a trip to Dovedale being quite upset when a sheep grabbed the sandwich I was holding and made off with it. Another time on top of Helvellyn a sheep climbed onto a client's lap to get his sandwich and headbutted him when he didn't relinquish the goodies. More accidentally, back in the days when you could camp on the Clachaig Green in Glen Coe a friend left his tent flysheet open one wet night. A sheep saw the tent as a refuge from the rain and Jon woke in the early hours to see two eyes staring at him from a few inches away. He panicked and so did the sheep, which trod on his eye on its way out. For the next few days everyone took great delight in asking Jon how he got his black eye to get the answer "A sheep trod on me"😁.

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