Most Lake District farms are family affairs; the farmer or one of his offspring is the shepherd. At busy periods, everyone helps out with the work, but in general, no one person is exclusively responsible for the sheep, which will spend most of the year wild on the fells.
The farms are divided into two different categories; privately owned and tenanted. When speaking of privately owned farms, one is talking of the buildings and 'inside ground'. Generally the grazing land on the fells is common land, the farmer having grazing rights over a certain area. Having said that, even privately owned grazing land is subjected to rigourous planning permission and regulations. For example, the fells around the Buttermere Valley are all privately owned, but the only thing the owner can do with them is put sheep out to graze.
Tenanted farms within the Lake District are nearly all owned by the National Trust, being the only organisation with enough money to buy property within the region when it comes onto the market. They rent the buildings and fields to tenant farmers, who have certain restrictions imposed upon them by their landlord.
A shepherd's year could be said to start in November. At this time of year, the sheep roaming wild on the fellsides are gathered in the various fields that are scattered around the valley floor. Most of these sheep are breeding ewes, between three and eight years old. These ewes are then mated with a 'Tup' (ram) then returned to the fellsides, where they pass the rest of the winter in the mountains.
During the quieter, winter months, the shepherd carries out most of the essential maintenance work, which includes farming, fencing, dry stone walling, building repair, etc. At the same time, the shepherd must look after the breeds that are not hardy enough to pass the winter on the mountains. In addition, the shepherd needs to tend to any cattle, which must be kept in 'byres' (cowsheds) throughout the winter months.
Around Easter, things suddenly start to get very busy. The previous year's lambs, now called 'hogs', are returned to the farm. They have just spent their first winter in the relative luxury of outlying fields, where the weather is a little less inhospitable. These hogs are then, reluctantly, pushed up onto higher fell ground, where they spend about two days before deciding that they don't like the weather up there. After being chased out of the village half a dozen times, the hogs start to get the message that they are not really wanted and have to get used to living on the fellsides.
Around the same time, the heavily pregnant ewes are gathered for lambing. Once the lambs are born (usually singles, but occasionally twins or even triplets) the fun starts.
Some ewes decide that the horrible little creature in front of them is not their own and run off in the other direction, leaving the shepherd to discover which lamb goes with which mother. Some, still pregnant ewes, try to 'steal' lambs from their own mothers. Then there is the difficult task of 'setting to', getting ewes whose lambs haven't survived to accept other ewes' lambs, either because the mother doesn't have enough milk for the quadruplets she's just given birth to, or, more likely with sheep, because she didn't want to go through the same thing the next year and decided just to drop dead to spite the farmer.
Providing the shepherd survives lambing time without having a nervous breakdown, four weeks later he turfs all of the sheep out from the fields and back to the fells.
Around two months later, they are all gathered back in for their annual haircut or 'clipping', as it is known. Watching a shepherd clipping sheep can be quite an educational experience for the uninitiated, not only will you be impressed by the speed at which the shepherd can remove the fleece from a sheep's back, but you will also learn a whole new vocabulary - sheep don't like having their hair cut and shepherds, in general, are not renowned for their verbal self-control.
At this point, it might be worth noting the different breeds of sheep to be found around the Lake District. The most common is the Herdwick, a hardy little animal, usually with dark wool and a white face and legs. These sheep are found exclusively in the Lake District, being ideal for the harsh weather conditions. The downside is that their wool is extremely coarse and useful only for carpets, thus the shepherd actually loses money when he clips them; working out the time taken, it actually costs him money to sell the wool.
Other breeds to be found in the Lake District are 'Swaledales' and the occasional 'Cheviot'. These, while being less hardy, are more valuable as they have better wool and faster-growing lambs.
In August, the lambs are separated from their mothers, the ewes are returned to the fells and the lambs are segregated by sex.
The 'wether' lambs, males, are sent to market, while the 'gimmers', females, are kept for future breeding stock.
Around October, these gimmers are sent away to spend their first winter on lowland farms, preparing to return the next spring as hogs.
During the autumn, the older ewes (seven or eight years old) are sold off. These animals have become too old to survive winter on the mountains, but may live another three or four years on lowland farms.
The financial situation of Lakeland shepherds is very complex. Most farmers would happily admit that if they sold up they would probably be very wealthy men. Sheep themselves, however, don't actually make much money. The strange situation now is that some farmers are actually being paid not to farm or to 'set aside' land. Many of these old farms have been converted to bed and breakfasts, signalling that the days of the tourist-hating shepherd are over. They've realised that tourism brings in the money that sheep cannot.