Plenmeller Halt

Shepherds Guide 1885 front cover. Source: C. Ruskin

Gelt Bridge

Sheep marks from Allotment House Farm, Wolsingham & Low Allers Farm, Wearhead. Source: C. Ruskin

Title page of the Wear Valley Extension Railway plans of 1845

Sheep ear marks used in the North Pennines Source C. Ruskin.

Shepherds Guide
Original Location: Printed in Barnard Castle
Current Location: Private Collection
Theme: Agricultural
Period: Post Medieval
Date: 1885

What is it?
The first edition of The Shepherds Guide published in 1885. This reference work compiled by the amalgamated east, south and north Fells Associations was created to assist in the recovery of stray sheep on the open moors of the north of England. The book listed each members’ name, place of residence and how their sheep were to be distinguished by horn burns, ear and wool marks.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
The 1885 Guide was the result of a co-ordinated and co-operative effort by sheep farmers in northern England to solve the problem of straying sheep which grazed ‘the unenclosed Moors, Commons, Fells, Stinted Pastures, or Waste Lands, in Yorkshire, Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland, and Durham’. The farmers joined together in three regional associations for the east, south and north fells, agreeing ‘That each member shall gather all Stray Sheep belonging to the Members of this Association, upon the Moor or Common upon which his Sheep usually go, four days previous to the Meeting of Exchange within his district where he resides, and forward them in proper time to the aforesaid meeting’. In the North Pennines these meetings to sort out stray sheep and restore them to their owners took place twice yearly. The exchanges were usually held at public houses such as the Blue Bell Inn, St. John's Chapel; High Force Inn, Teesdale; Stang Foot Inn, near Barnard Castle and the Corn Mill Inn, Allenheads.

The last exchange meeting was held in 2010 and the attached interview with the late Maurice Reed, a sometime fells association secretary, shows how these arrangements continued to be useful into the 21st century. However, digital records of all the sheep belonging to a particular farm are now kept and each animal is required by DEFRA to wear two ear tags, one of which can be read electronically. The Guide continues today with many of the sheep marks unique to individual farms passed down the generations remaining virtually unchanged. Published at roughly 10 year intervals from 1885 the Guide gives a continuous record of the names of farms and farmers from 1885 to the present day. Some of the Cumbrian records go back even further to 1817.

Why is it important?
The Shepherds Guide highlights both the difficulties and importance of sheep farming in the North Pennines hills. The terrain and climate are unsuitable for arable farming and the uplands are classified by DEFRA as a Less Favoured Area (LFA). Sheep farming became economically significant in the North Pennines from the middle of the 13th Century when Henry III decreed that forests could be cleared of woodland for activities other than deer hunting. It continues to be important with the north east home to just under 2 million sheep, 13 per cent of the English flock and the hill farming area of the North Pennines and the Northumbrian boarders LFA accounting for about 24 per cent of breeding ewes in England.

Interview with the late Maurice Reed:

Further Information

    Text References:
  • From a copy of the 1885 Shepherds Guide in Kendal Library, Local Studies, item WOO636.3 No.300.
  • Ruskin C. The Disappearing Farms of Weardale York Publishing Co. 2012
  • DEFRA farm statistics l, T. 2015.

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