Editor's Blog

The Dartmoor Sheep Gather

I like sheep… and I like getting out onto Dartmoor… and so I was delighted to be able to combine both this weekend and watch the Dartmoor Sheep Gather, courtesy of the Dartmoor Hill Farm Project and Russell Ashford of Bowden Farm near Scoriton. This is the first time that this ‘aspect of Dartmoor’s unique cultural heritage’ has been opened up to the public, and both BBC Spotlight and Radio 4’s Farming Today were on hand to record the event.

It was a brilliant day. We were split into several small groups, each led by a ‘guide commoner’ – an active hill farmer, each one ideally placed to explain what was going on and to answer questions about the historic links between Dartmoor farms and their relationship with the moor. As we assembled I took the chance to photograph the traditional breeds most commonly seen on the moor, which were penned on site: Scottish Blackface, Greyface Dartmoor and Whiteface Dartmoor.

We headed up the beautiful track (down which some of Russell’s Scotch Blackface flock would later be drifted) towards Lud Gate and the open common.

Once out on Buckfastleigh Moor our guide, Philip French of Corringdon Farm, South Brent, talked to us about how the moor is cleared of sheep for a two-week period each November. Flocks are brought back to the farm to be treated for sheep scab and various diseases, and ewes put to the ram. Some farms put their stock straight back on the moor, some keep them off for longer; depending on the farm and its location. Sheep are ‘leered’ to a particular landscape area (lambs following their mother’s example), and different groups of sheep tend not to mix up (other than those that go ‘off-leer’). Philip explained that after the main gather members of the Commoners Council scour the valleys and crags for those sheep that have somehow evaded ‘capture’! (He also talked about the history of the legislation of common rights, which I am not going to go into here for fear of getting something wrong…)

We headed up onto the slopes of Puper’s Hill, with lovely views across the autumnal landscape to Holne Moor and Hamel Down beyond.

And then we caught sight of Russell and his dog, bringing the sheep across the moor (he later told us that a ‘proper’ gather would take all day and involve more people – and more sheep!).

Once the sheep were gathered at Lud Gate – look at the OS map and you can see how the walls bordering the common serve to ‘funnel’ livestock towards the gate – Russell was interviewed by the BBC.

Then it was back down the drift lane to the farm, where the sheep (mainly Scottish Blackface, with a few Texel cross lambs) were penned.

The next part of the event involved Russell and David Attwell, Hill Farm Project Training Coordinator, selecting a ewe (left) and lamb (right) and talking through their life cycle and physical attributes. It was fascinating. I learned that the ear tags carry hold information relating to location (ie Devon), the farm and the individual animal. Questions flowed from the interested onlookers,  concerning financial value, health care and passports (sheep don’t have to have them – any suggestion that they might is being strongly resisted). The children present were allowed to get ‘up close’ to the two ‘examples’ on show, which seemed remarkably calm (David told me that if you get a sheep into a certain position it just doesn’t move!).

Russell says, ‘As an owner of common land and a grazier I am passionate to share with the public how we manage the commons and the benefits that delivers for the environment. These areas not only produce livestock but our grazing supports some of our rarest plants and birds while preserving our historic landscape.’ The value of inviting the public onto the farm and common to witness the sheep gather was clear, and I hope that yesterday’s event kicks off many more. My last photo shows a sheepdog demonstration by Kenny Watson from Postbridge, which the assembled company watched while tucking into local lamb and beef from Dartmoor Farmers catering van. The weather had closed in, and the wind picked up – it was getting decidedly chilly – so we beat a hasty retreat.

I’ll leave the last word to commoner Mat Cole of Greenwell Farm near Yelverton. ‘It’s really important that events like this share with the public how the landscape is managed and help to build a bridge between the consumer and the farmer. Many people don’t understand what a common is and how it’s used…’




On the trail of Dartmoor's infamous Hound...

It’s been a funny summer/early autumn for me. I’ve had to drop out of a couple of ‘big’ walking trips – a long weekend in Kintail in the Scottish Highlands to do the Five Sisters, and (today) 23 miles along the Abbot’s Way between Tavistock and Buckfastleigh. My tendons (damaged on the Dartmoor Perambulation in very hot weather) have prevented me from wearing boots until the last few days (normal service should resume shortly!). So walks have been shorter and less taxing than usual… but this has made me think about other ways of seeing Dartmoor, other than tramping across the high moor on foot. To that end (and in connection with a future feature in Dartmoor Magazine) last week I was delighted to be able to join Alex Graeme of Unique Devon Tours on his Hound of the Baskervilles Tour (2019 marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series of novels).

Alex has devised a brilliant tour that looks at Conan Doyle’s links with South Devon, and Dartmoor in particular. I’ll just pick out a few details of the day here, but I loved it all – and I learned so much. Alex disseminates a mass of information in a wonderfully relaxed manner – the story is of great personal interest to him, too (see below) which adds a really ‘warm’ element to the tour.

Many will know that Foxtor Mire, near Whiteworks, is said to be the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s dreaded Grimpen Mire in the story (see below), but Alex starts the tour in the village of Ipplepen – ‘surprisingly crucial to the evolution of The Hound of the Baskervilles’. There we saw the home of Bertram Fletcher Robinson,  friend of Conan Doyle, and who CD often visited to explore the moors. And Robinson’s coachman, who drove them on their moorland visits, just happened to be one Henry Baskerville…

Alex’s ancestors come into the back story at this point, too. His great-grandfather, Revd Robert Duins Cooke, served the community in Ipplepen from 1897 to his death in 1939. He was a friend of Robinson, and knew Dartmoor well. The two visited the moors together.

Next stop Ashburton, where we saw the later home of Henry Baskerville, and his grave in the churchyard of St Andrew’s. Alex also pointed out a plaque recording the fact that Sir Walter Raleigh was arrested in a hostelry (now the Exeter Inn) on West Street in 1603 ‘to be taken to the Tower’. I’ve been to Ashburton loads of times, but I never knew that! (Alex’s tours are remarkably civilised, too, with time for refreshments built in… we stopped for coffee at Taylors on North Street – just managing to resist the tempting array of cakes!)

Then it was off to the atmospheric ruin of Holy Trinity Church on the hill above Buckfastleigh (somewhere I have never been, but always intended to go). It is a beautiful spot, and steeped in history: sadly subjected to two attacks by arsonists, the second of which (in 1992) destroyed much of the building.

Next to the ruin can be found the tomb (seen in the photo below) of the infamous Squire Richard Cabell, a ‘monstrously evil man’, said to have sold his soul to the devil and whose ghost roams the moors at night with his evil pack of wisht hounds… thought to have given arsonists cause to fire the church. It is thought that his story inspired Conan Doyle to pen his most famous Sherlock Holmes novel.

From Buckfastleigh we made our way up to the moor, passing above Brook Manor, thought to be the inspiration for Baskerville Hall in the story. We stopped at Combestone Tor, which overlooks the Dart valley. The spot as nothing to do with The Hound of the Baskervilles’ story, but bizarrely our bright and sunny day had disappeared, to be replaced by howling wind and low cloud…

We had lunch at the wonderful Rugglestone Inn in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, after which we headed back to Ipplepen (we’d run out of time – too much talking!).

Alex’s tour goes on to visit the Bronze Age settlement at Grimspound (below), thought to have been Conan Doyle’s inspiration for the stone huts in which Sherlock Holmes hid on the moors. And finally Foxtor Mire (see header photo), which Conan Doyle, Robinson and Baskerville visited together. Alex takes his guests to the National Park Visitor Centre at Princetown too, formerly the Duchy Hotel, where Conan Doyle is known to have stayed.

Alex shares much, much more information than I have covered here – and the day went by in a flash. Thank you for a really enjoyable tour – and congratulations on being named UK Tour Guide of the Year at last week’s Wanderlust magazine’s World Guide of the Year Awards 2018!