The Invisible Strands of Culture


Culture is usually defined in terms of a higher understanding of the arts and other intellectual achievements – anything from opera at Glyndebourne to Morris Dancing and the Helston Floral Dance. But in this post, I use the term as meaning the characteristics and social interactions of a particular community. In this case, the community which revolves around hill farmers.

There are three strands to these interactions. The first is the very personal and which affect the individual farmer in ways such as their own emotional contact with the land that they farm and the landscape around their farm. The second and third strands are the outward interactions of the farmer with the many people, animals and architecture around the farmer – that entity which we might call ‘the community’.

A sense of the community which revolves around the farmer can be detected indirectly by watching the number of people who turn up to a funeral or memorial service for a local well known farmer. The church will be packed; and this gives an indication of the number of lives that that farmer touched during his or her own lifetime. In that church service, there will be children of every age. One generation slips away and another replaces it. The invisible threads that bind that community repair themselves and the loss is healed. Provided there are farmers to replace the one who has died, that healing manifests itself in the form of continuity in the landscape, the animals which populate it and the settlements of the farmers themselves.


Figure 1 – The culture of interactions between the farmer, family, community and animals. The black arrows indicate direct links between one specific category and the next. The broad red arrows show the general links between one block and the next. In general, the closer a coloured block is to the farmer, the more direct is the interaction. The black arrows create a matrix of interactions which suggest that each of the three light coloured sectors are intimately connected. The top two sectors would scarcely exist without the bottom sector which contains the sheep, cattle and dogs. Taking the bottom sector out of the uplands would leave a very large hole in the community – and an even bigger one in the landscape.

The invisible threads that issue from the farm into the local community are tied together with a commonality of language, of blood relationships and of the relationships of neighbours and friends; and still further with the relationships of colleagues and those that work with the hill farmer. In the case of a Welsh hill farmer, there is an obvious manifestation of one of these strands – that of the language. To a non Welsh-speaking Englishman such as myself, spoken Welsh seems to flow downhill from the hills to the valleys like so many of their rushing streams. The language itself reflects the humour, observations and landscape of the people themselves. Most hill farmers in Wales have Welsh as their first language and some speak English only by slowing down and thinking carefully. Look around a pen of ewes at a livestock market in Wales. The crowds will be clad and hatted in green and brown and the eyes will be dark and shrewd. Their pickups may be Japanese, but their livestock trailers will be made by Ifor Williams. Elsewhere in the British Isles, Gaelic might replace Welsh, or the many dialects of English, but the substance is just the same – an individuality which is defined by the place in which it is found.

Another manifestation of the invisible cultural threads that issue from the hill farmer is to found at any agricultural show. There are many of these throughout the country, some of the biggest being the Royal Welsh, the Royal Cornwall and the Royal Highland shows. Look carefully at the livestock section and there you will find dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and all manner of other more exotic animals. Watch the judging for the sheep or the cattle and  watch them move amongst the line of hopefuls, critical and eagle-eyed for any imperfections. Teeth, feet, udders and testicles are checked and then the prizes awarded to the lucky owners. Underneath the surface of this outwardly good-natured and polite ritual is a seething hotbed of competition. Go along to the sheep tent early in the morning before judging and you will find the corridors between the pens filled with sheep being primped and cosseted; and with the sound of hand shears hissing rhythmically amongst the low talk of the owners.

The animals themselves provide another strand in the culture of the hill farmer. Not just at showing time, for that is merely the warm-weather interregnum between lambing and shearing – a chance to get off the farm for a day or two and catch up with old friends. No, here I mean the bonds which exist between the farmer and his (or her) animals. The way the sheep are hefted upon the hillside – the habit of individual sheep to restrict themselves to a particular part of the open hillside. These territories, or hefts, are handed down from one ewe to her daughters in a continuous line. The advent of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001 brought with it the destruction of many flocks; and with it went the sense of place enjoyed by those sheep. The replacement flocks seem to have re-built the hefts, but it was a close run thing.

The sheep interact with the shepherd closely, often dependent upon him for help at lambing time and extra food during the winter. The gathering, shearing, worming, foot trimming, sorting for the tup, pregnancy scanning, lambing, weaning, fattening and transport away of the year’s surplus bounty are all times when the sheep become individuals to the farmer. Their needs are inextricably bonded to those of the farmer: “This ewe won Breed Champion at the local show three years ago. This one always gives us twins and this one gives us a single, but it is always a good one.” And so on.

The hill farmer or shepherd jumps onto the quad bike first thing in the morning with the dogs. He notes the greyness of the sky, the bitter cold and the shift in the wind. The sheep will have moved into shelter a little today and will be more difficult to find and count. Otherwise, each patch of grass amongst the heather and bracken will be occupied by a different ewe who will pass knowledge of this patch down to her daughters and grand-daughters – and so on for generations. The shepherd and his dogs know every boulder, scrubby rowan, birch and drystone wall behind which the ewes will shelter when the wind whistles, cold and mean, across the folds of the hillside. The shepherd is as hefted into the hills as his sheep.

The direct psychological links between the farmers and their livestock vary between individual farmers, but are real enough to the animals under their care. When the ewes are brought down off the hill for lambing and brought into the barn, they will watch every tiny movement of the shepherd. For herd animals like sheep and cattle who have complex social structures between themselves, body language is the biggest source of information – something which is rarely understood amongst we humans whose principle means of communication is spoken language. But the ewe lying quietly with her lamb in the barn will be watching and she will know precisely what sort of mood the boss is in this morning as he rattles buckets and heaves hay into racks.

The health and attitude of the farmer towards his or her livestock will often be reflected in the health and attitude of the sheep and cattle. It goes deeper than simply having a few ewes who have been bottle-fed and are a bit tamer than the others. Just as the health and  happiness of ordinary parents will likewise affect their children, so a very similar relationship between the farmer and their livestock exists. The links are invisible and poorly understood. An ailing and over-stressed farmer will often have ailing and over-stressed sheep and cattle.

The relationship between the hill farmer, sheep, cattle and the upland landscape is deep, intricate and often goes back over many human generations. It is the continuity of this relationship which has caused the landscape and all the living things within it to become what it is today. As economics, social change, government policy and disease have affected the hill farmer and the livestock, so the landscape has likewise borne the changes. Centuries of sheep and cattle husbandry in the uplands has created what we see and enjoy today. Removal of the animals and the farmers from this landscape would create radical changes to our uplands and terrible changes to the communities and culture which are dependent upon those same humans and animals.

If you wish to read a first hand account of shepherds in the uplands, you should read this.

David Eyles spent the first twenty years of his career as a quantity surveyor in civil engineering. He started work on the Thames Barrier Project in the mid 1970s and from there moved on to building hardened aircraft shelters in East Anglia – those being the days of a rather warm Cold War. On RAF Lakenheath, he was once observed nearly slithering his mini under the wheels of a taxiing F111 loaded up with tactical nuclear weapons. If nothing else, it would have been one helluva motor insurance claim and a sense of humour loss by the US Air Force. Later, he went to Nigeria for two years to build roads and see first hand what corruption can do to bring down an intrinsically prosperous country. There he had his first experience of seeing British overseas aid being wasted. He returned to the UK and attempted to write a novel, but was instead diverted into bird ringing and spent far too many nights chasing radio tagged Nightjars around Wareham Forest at dangerously high speed. By a mysterious route, then fell into farming via six worn out commercial hens; and wound up with a flock of 350 Dorset Down ewes and forty Traditional Hereford cattle. He then divorced, changed his life and arrived in Cornwall to find solace in the pedantry of hard data, wonderful pubs, good people and writing. His other interest include walking; some very poor quality photography; the philosophy of consciousness as it pertains to animals and humans; and a certain amount of politics. David’s writing can be found here

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