David Howitt - Farming & Countryside

I am David Howitt and I was born at Stainby but I now live at Skillington. I was born in 1946 and I was a big boy when I was born, eleven and a half pounds. I went to Stainby Primary School. There were 12 of us in the school at the time that was all. Then I went to King's School at Grantham for five years. I enjoyed it there up to a certain point but I was always associated with livestock and nobody was interested in that sort of thing at the school, it was all book-work. The thing that I did enjoy was the sport. I used to play cricket and rugby for the King's School. When I left school I played football for South Witham on Sundays and rugby for Kesteven Rugby Club on Saturdays every weekend when I wasn't working. I went to work for a farmer at Stainby, Mr Thompson, and stayed 7 or 8 years doing general work on the farm but mostly sheep. Then I went to work for a gentleman at Saxby near Melton Mowbray because I got more money and there were more sheep. I worked there for five years and then I was offered a better job working for Mr Bradley at Skillington. He was going to have a big sheep flock and wanted a shepherd who was capable of looking after a lot of sheep.

The house went with the job and we have lived in it for 36 years. When Mr Bradley retired from farming I was able to keep the house and I went self-employed then as a contract shepherd. When I worked for Mr Bradley I started off with about 100 breeding ewes and I built the flock up to about 800. I had some help - my wife! With the 800 ewes we had something like 1,200 lambs so that makes 2000 altogether I had to look after. Lambing is a busy time for a shepherd. It takes place usually in February and March. The ewes are brought into a shed close to the farm and as they lamb they are put in individual pens and kept there for 24-48 hours while the sheep get associated with their lambs. Sheep of today are a lot more prolific than, say, the Lincoln Longwool which is an older type of sheep. Such is modern farming you have to produce as many lambs as you can to make more money. Orphan lambs are put onto the bottle or on a machine that has 3 teats and the lambs help themselves. The machine is filled with warm milk, kept at a certain temperature all day by an electric heater. Some ewes reject their lambs, some ewes are a bit weak and cannot cope or they have triplets. The smallest one is taken away and bottle-fed until a ewe is found with no lambs at all. It is not always accepted by the ewe. You have to use tricks of the trade. If their own lamb has died you take the skin off the dead lamb and tie it on the new lamb. The sheep smells the scent of its own lamb then. If you can imagine how many sheep there are in the country and every ewe knows its own lamb! When the new-born lambs are dry, we put rubber rings on their tails so the tails fall off after a week to 10 days. This makes sure that they don't get dirty round the back end and then they don't attract the flies over the summer.

The boy lambs that we don't need for mating purposes, are castrated in the same way by using rubber bands. Then it is out into the fields for them all. Usually we put a number on them, say a number 1 on the ewe and a 1 on each of its lambs. As you can imagine if we have 4 or 5 hundred ewes with lambs, a lot of them look the same. This way you know which lambs belong to which ewe. When the lambs get to 8 weeks old they are wormed. All through the summer the lambs are wormed once a month, otherwise they would not thrive. They pick up the worms from the grass. Shearing comes next in the farming year. Before we do this, all the sheep have to have the dirty wool cut off their tails. Nowadays, farmers have their sheep shorn by a contract shearer who goes round all the farms. I still do a bit; I used to do a hell of a lot. Now I help with the preparation. The contract shepherd comes along with a shearing trailer. The ewes are sorted out from the lambs and are pushed up a ramp into the trailer where the shearer pulls them out to one side and shears them. Then they go back to their lambs and back into the field. They are much happier without the wool when the weather is hot. Not many people dip now because you have to have a license and be specially qualified. The old dips affected human health and they also affected the sheep. Now the dips are not so strong. You have a spray held in a knap-sack on your back. The ewes and the lambs are gathered in a pen and you go round and spray them individually, probably twice a year. In the autumn the ewes are mated and then, come Christmas, we are thinking about lambing again. Sheep are fed on hay, silage and concentrates during the winter-time. In the old days the sheep were fed on food produced on the farm, oats and barley, turnips and kale. The farmers would mix their own food. But nobody grows those sorts of crops any more. Stubble turnips were sown after harvest, they are quick-growing. I have always had sheep-dogs, Border Collies that I train myself.

At the moment, I have 3 sheepdogs, Molly, Dee and Tess. Molly is a pup I bought 3 or 4 weeks ago and it is just starting to learn how to work. But it takes time to train them to work properly. I used to whistle to them but now I shout to them. I worked for Mr Bradley for 17 years, taking the sheep to market, Grantham, Stamford or Oakham markets on Tuesdays and Fridays taking fat lambs in a van-driven trailer. All those markets were busy then because all the local farmers had sheep. A lot of farmers have packed up keeping sheep, nobody wants the work. Young lads of today, they'd sooner sit and press a few buttons. Shepherding involves a lot of physical work and night-time work as well. At Mr Bradley's I used to do days and half the night in spring. We did that for something like 4 to 5 weeks. It was 18 hours a day. Luckily we lived near the farm and I could nip home to eat. When I started being self-employed, I went round the local farms doing any sheep work including sorting the lambs out for market and I worked in the markets as well. I was at Melton Mowbray market on a Tuesday for 10 to 12 years. They built a sheep shed at Melton some years back which could hold 8,000 sheep. Lorries would bring the fat lambs in from all over the East Midlands. They would be taken off the lorries, booked in under the right names, put in pens in the sheep-shed and go to the weigh-bridge to be weighed, 10 or 12 at a time. This was so the buyers knew how much they weighed when it came to bid for them. Each week 2-2 thousand fat lambs were sold. A few local butchers might buy them but it was mostly wholesale buyers for the supermarkets. Then the lambs would be reloaded up in the lorries and taken to the abattoirs where they would be slaughtered. These could be anywhere from Worcester to Wales, even to Anglesey. It was hard graft hauling sheep. They could be awkward unless you knew how to handle them.

They do realise when somebody knows what they are doing. People say that sheep are stupid but they are not that stupid. The fat lambs sell for about 40 each but in the early summer last year's have about gone and the best of the early lambs are not ready, so the price is high, around 65. We try to get the lambs ready a bit sooner to catch the higher prices. The price goes down at the end of July or the beginning of August. September and October have the lowest prices. Fat lambs are sold every week of the year except Christmas. The worst conditions for sheep are cold winds and rain. Baby lambs can stand cold frosty weather, they don't mind that, but they hate being wet at the same time. If they are at all weak, they can die quite quickly. You have to go and look after them, no matter what the weather is. Sometimes we bring them inside. There are always foot rot problems with sheep all year round and you have to clean the foot up with a sharp implement and then run them through a foot bath. Sheep scab has to be dealt with, and flies which have been terrible this summer caused by the muggy wet weather. The sheep get maggots laid by the flies. It is awful when you see a sheep being eaten away by maggots. They can get an eye problem called New Forest Disease which can cause them to go blind. It is better if you can attend to your own medical problems as the Vets are so very dear. It costs about 40 just to get them out to the farm.

One day I was asked if I would like to go and look after the sheep at Woolsthorpe Manor. The flock was a bit run down but we are producing more and better lambs now. I have taken these Lincoln Longwool sheep to shows and won prizes. Before-hand, I clean them up and make sure they haven't got dirty bottoms, wash their faces, comb their wool out to get the grass or thorns out, and make them look nice. Also I have to train them to walk on a lead like a dog. When you take them to a show, they have to be led round the show-ring on a halter. It takes quite a while to train them; you have to do it every day for 3 or 4 weeks. Lincoln Longwools are much more placid than the modern sheep of today. I have a drawer full of rosettes. Last year, I got Reserve Champion at the Grantham Show and Supreme Champion at the Melton Fat Stock Show at Christmas. You get about 40 prize money. This summer I went to the Rutland Show and I got 3 first prizes, 2 second prizes and the Supreme Champion, which I was quite pleased about. I am semi-retired now but I haven't had a week's holiday for 10 years. Sometimes I get a bit fed up with the job but you have to by-pass the bad days and think of the good times. These are taking the sheep to the shows and showing people what good stock you've got, and getting a name for yourself for producing good stock. I am proud of being a shepherd. I started looking after sheep when I was 7 or 8 years old and I delivered my first lamb when I was 9. I have been shepherding 45 years now. I specialised in sheep and if I went back I wouldn't change anything.