The Dogs of Windcutter Down: One Shepherd's Struggle for Survival

The Dogs of Windcutter Down: One Shepherd's Struggle for Survival

by David Kennard

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"There is no good flock without a good shepherd, and no good shepherd without good dogs."

These age-old words of wisdom have always guided Devon sheep farmer David Kennard. But as he battles to save his farm from extinction, they take on a greater weight than ever.
The storm clouds are already gathering when Borough Farm suffers a series of disastrous setbacks that threaten the Kennard family's traditional way of life. Though the farm has survived foot and mouth disease, an invasion of stray sheep, and the threat of disease, a malfunctioning tractor and a sickly sheepdog all add to the farm's daily pressures. How much longer can they stay afloat financially? And will David be the last shepherd to tend his flock in this rugged corner of England? Is there a way to achieve the seemingly impossible---making a living through farming sheep in the twenty-first century?
A shepherd since the age of seventeen, David offers an honest and affectionate, often comic picture of life on his sheep farm. But throughout this gentle meditation on his family's rural way of life, David is in a fight for that life, and for the survival of his family and farm. He must rely---as always---on his faithful sheepdogs Greg, Swift, Gail, Fern, and Ernie. But even he is surprised when the dogs---and the new dog on the farm---exceed his expectations and prove to be Borough Farm's secret weapon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250100061
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/06/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

David Kennard's name has become a familiar one in the United Kingdom because of his bestselling video The Year of the Working Sheepdog. His first book, A Shepherd's Watch, was a Sunday Times (UK) bestseller. David lives in North Devon, England, with his wife, Debbie; three children, Clare, Laura, and Nick; and, of course, his dogs, Greg, Swift, Gail, Fern, Ernie, Jake, and Mist.
David Kennard's name has become a familiar one in the United Kingdom because of his bestselling video The Year of the Working Sheepdog. His first book, A Shepherd's Watch, was a Sunday Times (UK) bestseller. David lives in North Devon, England, with his wife, Debbie; three children, Clare, Laura, and Nick; and, of course, his dogs, Greg, Swift, Gail, Fern, Ernie, Jake, and Mist.

Read an Excerpt

The Dogs of Windcutter Down

One Shepherd's Struggle for Survival

By David Kennard

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2005 Borough Valley Ltd and Fantasma Partnership
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-10006-1


It Never Rains

A wicked blast of Atlantic wind wrenched the gate from my hand and sent it crashing shut. The horizontal rain was relentless, stinging my face and forcing my eyes to narrow slits. Violent storms had been blowing in for over a week now, and the whole North Devon landscape looked battered and sodden. A line of ash trees that ran along the stone wall had been bent almost double. Small branches were strewn far and wide, some half immersed in what days ago had been puddles but had now grown into small lakes.

The front wheel of the Land Rover stood in six inches of water inside the gate near the roadside hedge. Not a day for driving further into the field, I decided. The last thing I wanted to do was get stuck in this weather.

The reason for my visit to this corner of Town Farm, the land I rented in the coastal village of Mortehoe, lay a hundred yards away. A small group of lambs stood there, soaked and miserable, their backs to the wind, sheltering in the lee of a stone wall and some scattered clumps of gorse. The storms had begun to leave their mark on this flock of two hundred and fifty lambs. In the past four days I'd found three dead. Two more were so sick I'd had to take them on the short drive inland to the sheds at home on Borough Farm where they were undergoing treatment. I was almost certain of the cause: pasteurella, the biggest single killer of sheep in the country. As I made my way round to the back of the Land Rover, I was quietly dreading discovering more victims during the latest, daily check of the flock.

No sooner had I hauled open the door of the Land Rover than two of my sheepdogs had leapt out. Gail and Swift were eager for an outing despite the foulness of the morning. The third occupant of the rear compartment wasn't quite so keen, however. Greg, my oldest dog, stayed put, peering out at the grey, rain-lashed world with little enthusiasm. I knew that look. He would have joined the rest of us if I'd asked, but he was just as happy to stay put.

'Good decision, Greg,' I muttered to myself, as the wind gusted once more, ripping the door from my hand and hammering it shut. I fastened the waterproof coat tight around my neck, and, with dogs at heel, set off towards the scattered flock.

Pasteurella is one of those bugs that is always present but a sheep can normally fend off. It only causes a real problem when the sheep's immunity is low. There are all sorts of factors that can reduce a sheep's ability to fight diseases; living in the face of a seemingly endless storm was one of them. At more than seven months of age, each of these lambs now possessed a thick coat easily capable of repelling the wind and rain, but coping with the constant bombardment from the weather was a relentless physical challenge and it had left them vulnerable and stressed.

The idea that sheep suffer stress may be difficult for many people to accept – after all, they are, for the most part, not the most intelligent and sensitive of creatures – but it is a very real problem, in its way every bit as harmful as a physical ailment.

Spotting the early signs of impending illness wasn't easy either. Generally a shepherd can identify a sickly sheep by its behaviour. It might hang away from the rest of the flock or refuse to be moved when being gathered, for instance. In these conditions, however, it was hard to tell anything. Today no one sheep was distinguishable from the rest. They all stood sheltering from the buffeting winds, sullen and drained of all enthusiasm for life. If I was going to have any chance of detecting any new cases of disease, then I must persuade them to move a little.

Gail, now three years old, stood at my side, her eyes nearly shut facing the stinging rain, her coat parted to the skin on the windward side. At the sound of a quiet 'Away, Gail' from me, she moved purposefully off into the wind, and began turning small groups of lambs into the middle of the field.

Swift, aged six, is Gail's mother. While her daughter worked one side of the field, she stood patiently with me, her gaze fixed on the other side where she was anticipating I would soon send her. As ever, she was focused completely on work. It was as though she hadn't noticed the weather. With a 'Come bye, Swift' I sent her off and she was soon working in tandem with Gail. A reluctant straggle of lambs began grouping together. I started walking towards them, not wanting them to be driven any further than necessary.

A good stockman, it's said, will look for trouble, but hope to see nothing. In the event, nothing jumped out at me as being unusual. Part of me felt relieved, yet another part of me was counselling caution. I was just about to walk around the rest of the field, when I caught sight of two crows sweeping into the air from a large gorse clump. My heart sank as I changed direction and headed towards it. There could be only one reason for the crows' interest.

In the sheep-worn hollow of the centre of the bush, lay a new victim. It had a bloated belly and there was blood-stained froth bubbling from its nose, strong indications of pasteurella. Inwardly I'd been hoping the problem would pass over, but this now snuffed out any flickering sense of optimism. Wearily, I dragged the carcass back and loaded it onto the trailer. Swift and Gail had rejoined me and they clambered into the back of the Land Rover to be reunited with Greg, grateful, no doubt, to find the shelter of the cab once more. As I climbed back in and shut the door, beads of rain trickled down my neck. I unbuttoned my coat, and wiped my face dry on a dirty, damp jumper that had lain on the floor of the truck for weeks.

'It never rains, but it pours,' I mumbled to myself, as the wipers flicked back and forth at double speed, all the way back to the farm.

* * *

In the spring of this year, foot and mouth disease had struck mainland UK for the first time in over thirty years. The outbreak's impact was immediate and almost overwhelming. For my wife Debbie and our children Clare, Laura and Nick, the ever-present threat of the disease reaching Borough Farm became the complete be-all-and-end-all of our lives. For six months from the middle of February, our days became a seemingly endless cycle of spraying cars and washing wellies in disinfectant.

The daily checks on the local radio news and the Ministry website became a ritual filled with dread. The loss of the stock of many friends and acquaintances was reported with sickening regularity. Worse still, through much of March and April the direction of the spread seemed to indicate that it was 'when' not 'if' the invisible curse would arrive at Borough Farm.

Yet we were spared, and for that I believe we had to thank the farmers only a few miles away who were not so lucky. It must be one of the most difficult calls to make, to phone the Ministry to tell them that you believe your stock has become infected with foot and mouth. It effectively signs their death warrant. One friend made that call and found himself unable to speak. After he eventually hung up, the number was traced and his stock destroyed.

The images of burning pyres of livestock that filled the evening news bulletins showed all too graphically the devastating impact on the countryside's animal population, but the human cost of the disease was invisible, and incalculable. Although our flock had survived, even now in November, eight months on from the initial outbreak, the effects were still reverberating.

In the spring, five days after the disease had been declared, all livestock movements had been banned and abattoirs closed down, leaving stock effectively unsaleable. I was on the verge of lambing, and thus the arrival of a new stock of a thousand or so lambs, but, more frustratingly, three hundred of my previous year's lambs were still on the farm, where they were being plied with expensive feed. They should have been sold over those next few weeks, but by the time the restrictions were slackened, several weeks later, so that movements to certain slaughterhouses were permitted under licence, there was a surfeit, so we faced a buyers' market – and with it a hopelessly poor price.

Because they'd remained on the farm past the point where they'd cut their adult teeth, the price of these older lambs was going to be drastically reduced anyway. Even in normal trading conditions, this is the point at which the processing industry deems they halve in value, but, with my regular outlet still closed, I didn't even have a buyer with whom I could negotiate something approaching a fair price, and I'd been forced to trawl around the few businesses that might have been willing to risk buying stock from an area that had been so close to an outbreak. I'll never forget the phone conversation I had with one buyer.

'There's a bloke on the phone with a hundred lambs to sell ... How much shall we offer him?' I heard one lady call to her colleague, not even bothering to cover the receiver with her hand.

The price I eventually got barely covered the cost of feeding them over the previous prolonged winter months.

* * *

Now, in November, with six hundred of this year's lambs still to sell and prices still flat, the farm was once again facing a significant loss.

When Debbie and I had moved to Borough Farm, nine years earlier, we'd done so with our eyes wide open. We'd accepted that the financial returns from a few hundred sheep were never likely to be that great, but we felt that the job and the way of life it gave us and the children would always be more than ample compensation. And so it had proved – until now.

For the first time, the balance had tipped in the other direction. As the winter approached, the picture was bleak: the farm's finances were in free-fall and for the life of me I couldn't see the turning point. We couldn't carry on like this much longer. Which was why, after all we'd gone through this year, it seemed such a cruel twist of fate, to be facing an outbreak of pasteurella.

* * *

The Land Rover bumped down the lane into Borough Farm. Debbie wandered across the yard, clad in a waterproof coat, her dark hair catching a sudden gust, as she carried a bucket towards the feed-shed.

'Well?' she said, scraping wayward strands of hair from her face and peering into the trailer as I climbed out.

She soon spotted my rather grisly cargo. 'At least it's only one today,' she said, trying to put a brave face on things.

She knew it wasn't going to lighten my mood.

On the way home I'd been to see the vet, who'd wasted little time in confirming my fears.

'See the colour of the lung,' he'd said, as he scooped the salmon pink organ from the carcass he'd just opened up. 'That area of dark red tissue can't absorb any oxygen. It's certainly pneumonia, and ten to one it's brought on by pasteurella.'

I explained this to Debbie in a dour monotone.

'What does he reckon you should do?' she said, trying to steer the conversation into positive territory.

If only there had been a straightforward answer. The lambs had all received one vaccination against the pasteurella bug. The problem was they wouldn't be fully protected until they received a second dose in two weeks' time.

'Moving them to a more sheltered field would help,' I said, 'but that's a risk as well because the stress of the move might finish a few more off. The best thing is just to hope that the weather improves a little, and give them the second jab a week early.'

To be honest, neither of these options seemed satisfactory, but the only other course of action was to treat every lamb with a dose of penicillin, something that went against all my instincts. Avoiding the introduction of antibiotics into the food chain is one of the fundamentals of good husbandry.

'Perhaps we'll leave it one more day,' I said. 'If there are any more problems tomorrow I'll have to go through them with penicillin.'

Debbie could see that there was little chance of lightening my mood.

'Come on, it's lunchtime; if you come in now we can catch the weather forecast.'

A flurry of leaves rustled across the yard as we walked towards the house, blown from the recently planted saplings on the bank below. Greg and Swift ran along ahead and stood expectantly at the door.

Ordinarily I keep all five dogs kennelled outside, but in recent months Greg had begun to spend more and more time in the house. I didn't have a problem with this; to me it was a right he had more than earned during his years of sterling service. The children loved having him indoors, and also had a soft spot for Swift, the other senior citizen of the kennel. For obvious reasons, however, Debbie wasn't always so keen to have the dogs inside with us.

'They're all wet,' she protested today, clearly worried at the prospect of wet, muddy tails being wagged over her walls and sofa, but she soon backtracked. 'All right, but if they come in they'll have to stay in the dungeon,' she relented, referring to the small boot room at the lower level of the house.

'Stop there, Greg, Swift,' I said in a sharp voice, knowing full well that they would soon skulk up the stairs to join us.

The radio didn't provide much cause for optimism. The deep low-pressure area that had settled to the north-west showed little sign of moving away. Gales would continue for at least the next day, and tomorrow it might be cold enough for sleet. 'Great,' I muttered, turning to the sandwich that had appeared on a plate in front of me.

A moment later Swift sneaked into the kitchen without Debbie spotting her, and quietly took up residence by the Aga. Stretching out and shutting her eyes, she looked a picture of contentment.

I was just about to head back out, when the phone rang, startling Swift from her semi-slumber.

'Mr Kennard?'

My mood wasn't exactly lifted by the voice on the other end of the line. It was a Ministry vet, following up an application that I had made to send some lambs away to 'keep' on the richer pastures of a nearby dairy farm for the winter. This had been the way of things for eight months now: any movement of livestock, no matter how small and seemingly unimportant, had to be cleared by the Ministry who issued an official form that who sent to the Trading Standards Office. It wasn't just a matter of them giving a quick OK, either.

'We need to do some blood-testing on your sheep before we can approve your application to make a movement,' the vet explained.

'How many do you need to test?' I asked with some trepidation.

'About 80 per cent of the flock. How many would that be?'

'Around eight hundred, but they're spread over seven flocks, in four places,' I explained, half hoping that she might decide that they didn't all need to be tested. Gathering such a large number of scattered sheep in so many locations was going to be a long job.

'That's fine. We'll come tomorrow morning. Would nine o'clock be all right?'

* * *

The visitors that gathered in the field looked better suited for a day trip to the moon. Each member of the Ministry team was clad from head to toe in a white space suit.

The weatherman hadn't been wrong. The relentless northeast gale brought with it sheets of face-numbing sleet, and as the inspectors stood huddled around a couple of hundred sheep, gathered in a hastily constructed pen, their hoods flapped in the ferocious wind. I could almost hear teeth chattering. There wasn't a smile to be seen.

I wasn't exactly cock-a-hoop to be going through this rigmarole either. Long before foot and mouth I'd grown used to having visits by inspectors from assorted government agencies and environmental associations, but a part of me always resented having my farm taken over by the bureaucracy that these inspectors represented. Part of the attraction of being a farmer, for me, at least, has always been the freedom it provides. To have officials dictating what I could and couldn't do with my stock went against the grain.

Yet, in this case, I was all too aware of the bigger picture. There were more important issues at stake than just my farm. The team and their leader, a vet called Julia, had my sympathies.

First of all they were only doing their job. These blood tests allowed the Ministry to make sure foot and mouth hadn't spread unnoticed beyond the known areas of infection. With the outbreak under control, the last thing anyone needed now was a farmer unwittingly making a movement of livestock that were carrying the disease.

Also, it took a certain level of hardiness to do this job. If the last nine months had been difficult for farmers, it had, if anything, been even worse for the vets at the front line. Day in, day out they had been forced to make monumental and heartbreaking decisions, often ordering the destruction of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of perfectly fit animals in the attempt to form a 'firebreak'.


Excerpted from The Dogs of Windcutter Down by David Kennard. Copyright © 2005 Borough Valley Ltd and Fantasma Partnership. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. It Never Rains,
2. Unwelcome Visitors,
3. 'That Dog',
4. Mixed Fortunes,
5. The End of the Road,
6. The Changing of the Guard,
7. Facing the Future,
8. A Nasty Itch,
9. Beer and Skittles,
10. An Early Start,
11. In the Blood,
12. A Condemned Man,
13. Basic Instincts,
14. 'The Best Days of Our Lives',
15. One Can't Start, One Can't Stop,
16. The End of the Gang,
17. Elusive Customers,
18. An Off Day,
19. A Killer on the Loose,
20. The Dogs of Windcutter Down,
List of Illustrations,
Also by David Kennard,

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