Being a Shepherd
In the Cambrian Mountains eating ice cream, moving sheep and talking about life with Erwyd Howells, a 67-year old freelance shepherd
This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of The Happy Reader — https://www.thehappyreader.com/. It is re-published with their permission.
Erwyd Howells is a shepherd. It is one of the world’s oldest jobs, going back at least five thousand years. From China to Corsica, from the Carpathians to the Cambrian Mountains in Mid Wales, where Erwyd works, sheep live and die under the watchful eyes of those who look after them.
He was born in 1948 in Ponterwyd, a village in the county of Ceredigion. His family has been in the area for at least three hundred years. Sitting in the front room of his small cottage one overcast Tuesday morning, he tells me that his father and grandfather were both also shepherds.
Erwyd is a freelance shepherd: he doesn’t own his own flock but works for those who do. Aged sixty-seven, he has short, thinning grey hair specked with white and black, and a kind, handsome face that still recognisably belongs to the dashing village charmer whose picture I spot on one of the bookcases.
He lives a few miles inland from Aberystwyth. His cottage is connected to a chapel. In lieu of rent, he is tasked with keeping it clean and tidy; his back garden is a graveyard, which he also maintains. He has a few sheep of his own. They graze just beyond the rows of gravestones, sometimes wandering onto the side of a hill owned by a neighbour.
He is paid £7 an hour and has never made more than £8,000 a year. When he started working, aged fifteen, he was paid £2.50 a week, plus room and board. Money isn’t important to him. He lives frugally. There’s no television or computer in the small, cold house. He has a home phone but no mobile, a fact that hadn’t stopped me from trying to text him in the run-up to our meeting. Books in Welsh — his first language — and English spill over his old wooden bookshelves. Election brochures line the fireplace. Two full buckets of water sit next to the toilet. ‘There are two things I detest,’ Erwyd says, chuckling, ‘politics and mains water.’
Erwyd shows me some quotations that are precious to him. One, from the early twentieth century, is by Tommy Jones, a famous shepherd from South Wales ‘Few shepherds do the job for monetary gain; they do it because it is what matters to them.’ Another is from James Gardner, an English shepherd and collie dog trainer who, in the nineteenth century, wrote: ‘A shepherd’s life, properly understood, is the richest in the world.’ Erwyd feels the truth of these words in his bones. ‘Millions of people go to work and they’ve got to go to work because of money,’ he says. ‘They have to. They’d rather be somewhere else but they’ve got no choice. I flit from one place to another and I meet different people… People matter to me and the people I work for are like an extended family… They feed and water me… Their joys are my joys. Their sadness is my sadness.’
There is the sadness of the community and there is his own sadness. His wife died of a rare form of cancer when she was just twenty-eight. Their children — a son and a daughter — were only three and four years old at the time and Erwyd, devastated by grief, sent them to live with his late wife’s parents during the week while he worked. On the weekends they came back to the house next to the chapel.
He has never remarried, though he has had — and continues to have, by all accounts — many girlfriends. But having fun and building a life together are different things. Erwyd has never been in love with anyone else. ‘It’s a situation you get used to,’ he says when I ask him if he is heartbroken. ‘You never get over it. Some people do. I’m probably not that kind of person.’
We climb into Erwyd’s old Peugeot estate car to drive out to the farm of one of his employers. ‘I keep my life in here,’ Erwyd says, gesturing at the sea of equipment, clothing and paper that surrounds us. His work outfit comprises a cap, fleece, waterproof trousers and boots — regular ones, not wellington boots. If it’s raining, he’ll wear a coat like a Barbour.
In the back of the car are two Border collies and a Welsh sheepdog. ‘I always make a policy of not falling out with my dogs,’ he says. The collies work all year round, the Welsh sheepdog only in summer, when it is tasked with driving sheep from field to field once they’ve been sheared.
He has owned seven generations from the same family, and although it sounds like the kind of story you’d tell a child whose pet has died, Erwyd says that once the dogs reach eight or nine years of age, he gives them away to small farms where they can still be of use. While they are still with him, these co-workers are kept in a kennel next to the graveyard. They never come into his house. They are tools, but that doesn’t stop Erwyd from caring for them. ‘I miss some of them,’ he says, of those no longer here.
At the farm, the two collies work one of the fields with Erwyd, herding the sheep to one end and into a pen. They respond to vocal commands (to avoid confusion he addresses one dog in English and the other dog in Welsh) but also to a wide variety of whistles. The whistle for ‘clockwise’ has one note, length and rhythm, and the whistle for ‘anticlockwise’ has another. Many shepherds use a mouth whistle but Erwyd prefers using his fingers. When I fail miserably to perform anything close to a commanding whistle, the shepherd sticks my fingers in his mouth and shows me how it’s done. My mouth is clearly the problem.
In the pen, Erwyd clips the ewes’ nails, picking them up by the neck and then turning them over so they are sitting up on the ground with their underside exposed. This is also, among other things, how he checks which ewes have lambed, which have milk and which are pregnant. The process demonstrates the dual personality of the shepherd. You have to be patient and gentle but also quick, firm and alert, prepared to grab a sheep decisively and roughly in the hook of your crook. ‘Sheep are very quick to their own ends,’ Erwyd says. ‘That’s food, usually, or some form of escape. If something goes wrong, it’s usually a man’s fault.’
This farm’s owner, Arthur Hughes, is semi-retired. He and Erwyd talk about how farming in their corner of Wales has changed. Life, says Arthur, used to be calmer. The shepherds could spend a few days shearing the sheep. Now, sheep are sheared by machine and the pressure to do it quickly is intense. Arthur sighs: ‘It’s a job to be finished.’
From Arthur Hughes’ place we head towards the Cambrian Mountains. We stop at the Devil’s Bridge, which has become a tourist attraction. Erwyd takes the opportunity to buy some Carte D’Or ice cream for the two of us. Every bend, turn and hill on our route has a name in Welsh, many of them impossibly romantic and all of them known by Erwyd. While he wants his ashes to be scattered at the foot of the Pumlumon massif, the Elan Valley, to which we are headed, is the place closest to Erwyd’s heart. Some of the valley’s land is made up of dams and reservoirs created at the end of the nineteenth century to supply water to the city of Birmingham.
On land leased to the Elan Valley Trust and, in turn, rented from them, is another of Erwyd’s regular employers, and one of his great friends, Robert Hughes (‘He’s not related to Arthur. Everyone in Wales is called Hughes’), and a farm that has been in his family since 1850.
The sun is shining now. Erwyd and Robert separate ewes from rams, and ewes that have lambed from those that haven’t. When they finish, they talk about work. Robert’s income comes from selling both lambs and wool. While it is better than it has been, the price of wool is much lower than it was twenty years ago. To supplement his income, Robert takes government subsidies stipulating that he must keep the hills free of sheep in the winter. With the sheep gone, the land is wilder and, so the theory goes, more beautiful for visitors and walkers. Robert and Erwyd prefer the traditional way — ‘keeping sheep on the hills 24/7, all year round’ — but it’s not financially viable.
This desire to maintain time-honoured ways of doing things is a sentiment shared by James Rebanks, the Cumbrian shepherd who gave his profession a rare moment in the limelight earlier this year when his book The Shepherd’s Lifebecame a number one Sunday Times bestseller. Speaking over the phone later, he’ll tell me that the fixation that government and environmentalists have with keeping the land free of livestock shows how the ‘public benefit in what we do has become invisible… The narrative says that this landscape is for walking and who are these pesky farmers to think otherwise.’
In 1976, Erwyd was featured in a BBC documentary called Shepherd. When I ask him what he thinks the future holds for his profession, he tells me that the BBC asked him that exact same question, and the answer he gave then was: ‘As long as there are sheep, there will be shepherds.’ He still believes that, but adds that the life of a freelance shepherd like him, who goes from farm to farm and hill to hill, may die out completely. The people who own the sheep will also be the ones who herd them. There won’t be enough money to maintain freelance shepherds.
We drive back across the Elan Valley. He tells me that if he were to win the lottery, he’d buy a swathe of good land and then give it to young people who are keen to get into farming. ‘There are lots of youngsters I know who are interested,’ he says. ‘But they have no chance of getting land because it’s the big dog that gets the bone.’ There would be no extravagant spending on himself; after all, the best things in life are free. ‘My three passions are sheep, dance and sex. Not necessarily in that order.’ He roars with laughter, lines beaming across his handsome face.
Back at the house, though, Erwyd talks about his wife. They met at a Twmpath — a Welsh folk dance (to this day, Erwyd still makes money teaching the dances) — and were married after eighteen months. They loved music. She was a librarian and she played piano beautifully, and, like any good Welshman, he sang. But then she was gone. ‘In this house I’ve experienced every possible emotion,’ he says. ‘Starting a life together, children coming and, of course, a total devastation… If my wife were still alive we would have moved on from here… As it was, it was as much as I could do to live and bring up the children.’
We drive to my hotel to have dinner. Erwyd realises that it was here, one November day long ago, that he got married. We walk in the grounds. He looks up at the trees. ‘It was snowing the day she was born, it was snowing the day we were married and it was snowing the day she died.’
This article originally appeared in the summer issue of The Happy Reader — https://www.thehappyreader.com/. It is re-published with their permission.