I have spent a year following four sheep farms in south Wales during which I captured key events for the animals and the people who work with them across a year.
My photographic background is rooted deeply in classical landscape work, with people largely absent from it. This project posed the challenge of working with people, largely in their ‘home’ environment where the building of relationships was as important as photographic skills. It also demanded, at times, a quick reaction to what is happening in front of me, in contrast to the slow deliberate approach of my landscape work. At times the compositional approach and the patience I learned from my landscape work were important for this project as I waited for the animals or people to come to me to create the images I wanted.
I brought both ignorance and curiosity to this work, learning so much from the people I observed. It afforded me an insight into the challenges of their work and their generosity in accepting me. Not for them the shelter of an office. Their work makes huge physical demands in all weathers.
The work from this project fed into an exhibition at the Cynon Valley Museum, Aberdare, which ran from 15th June until 21stJuly 2018. On each of the Saturdays the exhibition was on display, I gave a ‘walk through’ talk to explain the background and development of this project.
If you want to contact me to find out more, e mail me at email@example.com.
Comments, suggestion and ideas are most welcome.
All text and images Copyright Roy Carr
Lambing marks the beginning of the new cycle for the sheep farmer, providing the next generation of stock. Great care is taken to monitor the ewes as they approach lambing. Some farmers scan their ewes to indicate how many lambs they are carrying, others simply rely on their years of experience. Where there are concerns about the well being of the ewes, they are brought in to pens where they can be closely monitored, ensuring help is on hand to deliver the lambs.
This lamb had been ‘pulled’ from its mother just five minutes before by Sue, the shepherdess. The ewe called to her offspring, enticing it to stand and feed. Licking the lamb helped the two animals to bond, as the ewe learned the scent of her new born which enables her to recognise it within the flock. This also provides vital nutrients to the ewe, stimulating the production of milk.
Here the lamb nuzzles into its mother for a drink, her tail frantically waving as she does so.
Not all lambs are able to feed from their mothers. Some ewes may die during the trauma of birth — fortunately a rarity on the farms I visited . Others may reject their young. In either event, they need to feed if they are to survive. Here the lambs are bottle fed in the shelter of a barn. Others may rely on their shepherds to ‘dress’ them in the skin and fleece of a dead lamb in order to trick the ewe into feeding the orphan in the belief it is her own, as she recognises the scent of the orphan’s ‘jacket’.
The ewes are immensely protective of their young, keeping them close to hand.
Lambs quickly gain their independence, though they will bleat for their mothers if they become distressed or their mothers will call for their return.
Curiosity quickly gets the better of the lambs as they bravely venture out into their home environments.
GATHERING AND MOVING
The movement of sheep is a vital part of the work of the shepherd: taking their stock to fresh pasture to ensure a constant food source; taking them onto the mountains and ‘common land’; bringing them in for lambing, shearing or taking them to market.
This movement is a reminder of how little has changed over centuries. Shepherds still ‘walk’ their flocks over many miles, the gentle rhythm of which keeps stress on the animals to a minimum.
Food may also entice a flock to ‘come in’. Here these sheep thought I was going to feed them and came running over to take their fill, against the backdrop of a solar farm which for this farm in Rhigos, is an important part of their diversification.
A common sight in the lanes of south Wales is the movement of sheep along the narrow roads, as flocks are moved from one pocket of land to another. The farmers rely on the patience of drivers to keep their stock safe.
The introduction of quad bikes has made an enormous difference to the business of gathering, allowing shepherds to cover many miles which in the past would all have had to be walked.
But of course the other great tool available to the shepherd are their sheep dogs. Like their owners, they need to work in any weather. Care is needed in the summer especially as it is very easy for them to over-heat. No such problem here.
Working dogs are not always the prima donnas of the sheep trial circuit. These are tough animals, capable of standing up to sturdy rams who are not always so easy to persuade.
The affection between owner and dogs is nevertheless evident.
It’s hard to believe that between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, wool provided the foundation for wealth across much of Britain. The fleeces of sheep provided the raw material for cloth which was prized across Europe and traded, generating huge income for not just the ‘lords’ but also for the Crown in taxes.
In contrast, today shearing a sheep often costs as much as what is paid for the fleeces. The advent of synthetic fabrics and the use of cotton have dramatically reduced the demand for wool which is now often considered a luxury product.
It is nevertheless important to the welfare of the sheep, reducing the risk of maggot infestation from flies.
Sheep are brought down from the hills and driven to pens in preparation for shearing.
Sheds provide protection for the flock as they wait to be sheared. Importantly they are kept dry, making it easier to shear the sheep and minimising the risk of the fleece developing mould and slowly rotting away.
The pens also serve to act as a holding area from which sheep are fed into ‘runs’ ready for the shearers to do their work.
The shearers are immensely skilled in taking off the fleeces from the sheep. Their ability to hold and control the animal is essential in order to minimise the risk of injury to the animal, whilst ensuring that the fleece is removed in its entirety, quickly and efficiently.
The shearers will often work in ‘gangs’ to work their way through large flocks of sheep. On this particular day, I watched 1,137 sheep being sheered by five men in six and a half hours.
To enable this to happen, the shearers concentrate solely on the job of shearing. Neighbouring farmers may come in to help out, moving the sheep from pen to pen and feeding the runs or rolling the fleeces to place in a ‘wool bag’ ready to go to the Wool Marketing Board in Brecon.
These suede moccasins are worn by the shearers. Their soft leather allows them to feel the animal through them and grip the sheep with their feet, whilst also ensuring they do not hurt their animals as they do so.
The position for both the the shearer and the sheep are often very awkward
Firm restrain is essential
Once sheared, the fleeces are rolled ready for the wool bag. This allows air to be pushed out to compress them and also allows for the removal of ‘dags’, faeces or other blemishes, ready for the wool to be ‘graded’ and priced by the Wool Marketing Board.
After shearing, the sheep are often keen to make their escape from the shearing shed. Here, this sheep was caught mid air as it made its escape.
Hay remains an important source of winter food for sheep, when it may be difficult if not impossible for the animals to forage. Farmers have to make the best of the weather to gather in their crops ready for storage.
Here the tractor pulls a baleing machine over hay which has been gathered in lines for this purpose.
Once gathered the machine shapes and wraps the bale before ejecting it.
They leave behind that emblematic bale, so common to our landscape today.
The bales are gathered and taken to barns for storage, ready for winter.
Sheep sales are central to the shepherd’s life, providing a source of new stock as well as allowing them to sell on their own animals.
Increasingly, the markets are specialist, purpose built out of town concerns. A small number of local markets remain, such as the one in Penderyn, just north of Aberdare. These images were captured there. It is striking how this is at the heart of that community, though there are at times tensions between the farmers and the local community which is increasingly removed from farming traditions.
Pens are used to separate out the stock from different farms, or separating ewes from rams from the same flock whilst also allowing the auctioneers to make a record of all the animals for sale. This is strictly regulated in the aftermath of the foot and mouth epidemic which afflicted farms throughout Britain in 2001.
Electronic tags in the ears of each animal can be scanned to aid the recording of the movement of animals too as well as the licensing of such movements and the identification of each animal, essential among the sea of sheep below.
The farmers are not the only ones scrutinising the stock
The market is an important opportunity to renew old acquaintances or to sound out prospective buyers.
It’s also an important opportunity to check out the stock before they appear in the sales ring.
Sheep are paraded before their prospective buyers in the show ring. This is the last opportunity for buyers to decide whether they wish to bid.
Bids are announced at break-neck speed. For the outsider, they are almost impossible to follow.
Bids are often delivered with the utmost subtlety. A flick of a hand or the gentle nod of a head may be the only hint that a bid has been given.
The auctioneer looks to establish eye contact with those who deliver those tell tale signs of bids.
Finally the hammer goes down, confirming the highest bid.
The market is the place to consider the current prices and begin to make plans with fellow farmers.
The day ends with animals which have been sold being transported away for fattening, breeding or slaughter.
Behind the scenes there is much to be done: recording the bids; taking commission; making sure the transport licences are complete. Food, feeds all of those involved in this. Ann has been catering at Penderyn Market for the last 20 years.
The art of marking sheep with their distinctive dyes is known as raddling
Each farm may adopt its own colour as well as ‘mark’ the ears of the sheep in order to distinguish their animals from the flocks of others. This is essential where farmers share ‘common land’.
Shepherds are never afraid to innovate. Here a humble paint roller takes on a whole new role.
Among the most distressing afflictions among sheep, is ‘fly strike’. Flies, attracted by dung clinging to the wool, lay their eggs in the fleece. When they hatch, the maggots will feed off their host. At its worst, these maggots can literally eat a sheep alive, a slow painful death.
This ewe is in a sorry state. The maggots have advanced and Ifor attempted to cut back the fleece so that he could spray and kill the maggots. Sadly, much to his distress, he was too late, and despite his best efforts this ewe died.
Dipping is one method used by farmers to counter this. The powerful chemicals in the ‘wash’, kill off any insects that have burrowed into the fleece and provide a protective coating which will last for many weeks afterwards. It is usually done several weeks after shearing so that the sheep have developed a reasonable growth of wool to which the dip can stick. It is strictly licensed, as the chemicals in the dip are hazardous if not used correctly and care is needed with the disposal of the wash afterwards.
Sheep are once again penned before being fed into a run which will take them into the plunge bath. This is deep enough for them to have to swim, ensuring the wash penetrates underneath their limbs, killing off any insects which may have burrowed their way in. Careful management is needed to ensure this is done quickly and efficiently to minimise the distress of the animals.
The sheep are plunged to ensure total immersion and are then guided to the channel which will take them into their next holding pen.
Hefin uses this rope to raise and lower the gate which allows the sheep out of the plunge pool int the channel.
These sheep wait to be let through to the next section.
It was a cold, wet, miserable day when dipping was done, but for Ifor it was a necessary job that could not wait for better weather.
Hefin relaxes after putting 300 sheep through the dip.
The sheep wait in their pen after dipping.
The sheep are eager to get back on the hill after their dipping.
Winter is a tough time for shepherds and sheep alike. For mountain sheep the conditions are hazardous. Many mountain farmers send off their sheep ‘on tack’ to lower ground where the weather conditions are less harsh.
As so often, this can involve the loading of sheep into lorries for transportation.
There are however those animals that elude the ‘round up’ and need to survive amidst the snow.
They remain flock animals and pull together where they can.
Seeking out whatever sustenance they can find.