Dolgellau is a small livestock market, yesterday full of magnificent lambs, nearly mature now, trimmed and tidy, clothed in innocence and looking to their shepherd’s face for clues and sniffing the air, which was relaxed. These were being sold as store-lambs, to go on to other farms, not for slaughter. The owners were easy, joking, ready to chat. Cull ewe sales are a different matter, the sheep are left and the farmers have urgent matters to attend to elsewhere, they don’t hang around to see old ewes sold, those they have lambed and pulled out of bogs in the middle of winter or dug out of snow drifts.
Yesterday at Dolgellau, farmers perched on the pen rails, in the autumn sun, and chewed the cud. They looked at lambs smaller than their own and bemoaned the future for those farming on the edge, on the high, rugged land that you can see from the market, where the mountain pass rises by Cader Idris.
Old men remember the winter of ’47 or riding from Llanbrinmair to Aberystwyth over the moors without having to open a gate and the sheep court at Dylife where they sorted out the stray sheep once a year.
Young men know that the openness of the country still prevents them controlling their stock as they would like; one cautious man, mindful of recent late springs decided to lamb later, as they used to, only to find that his neighbour’s tup had already serviced half his ewes!
Bold marking helps muster sheep in mountainous ground where the hardy beasts jump stone-walls, hence the colourful pens of sheep.
Yesterday there were also people showing their pedigree Improved Welsh Mountain sheep. Prior to this I had harboured hopes of one day producing a breeding ram but I realise this is folly. These creatures have huge curled horns; the first and only year that we used a tup with horns the ram-lambs he produced, although as lively as you like, kept hooking themselves in the fences and one died. Now we always use a hornless male to father our lambs and although not always hornless the offspring have poor horns,certainly not suitable for hanging on fences and not show-horns!
The sight of a large ram walking to heel, on a lead is incongruous, like some strange dog, one that occasionally has a flash of recall and lowers its head, arches its back and kicks out its back legs, like a bison, before turning its head graciously to the camera. Breeders are flushed with pride but avoid any undue shows of emotion, this is, after all, a livestock market.
It is a proper manly place, not the sort of establishment where buyers are squeamish about testicles or undocked tails. In this more rugged terrain, there are enough challenges for young animals without adding to their stress by castrating or introducing infection and anyway, I thought testosterone built up muscle and isn’t that what its all about?
That brings me to lunch, £5 for a massive bowl of casseroled lamb’s liver and bacon with baked vegetables and mashed potatoes, eaten from the bowl with a knife and fork and fit to serve to anyone, anywhere. And pies and cakes and home-made fruit flans with cream to die for… But that’s not a problem for the men who still run up these steep hills tending their flocks, who carry sacks of feed,three at a time, and lug fully grown ewes about as if they are tired children and walk rams about on leads.