The past couple of weeks have been a busy spell for many of the hill shepherds in the north as they prepare for the first store lamb sales of the season.
There will have been many early starts to avoid the heat of the day and ensure clean gathers off the hill. Hefted ewes will have their preferred routes in from summer grazings that they would have followed with their mothers. No shepherd who knows the hill would ever try to change that imprinted map.
This is an opportunity for young dogs to prove their worth. For me it’s vital to have a good mix of ages through your kennels. The enthusiasm of youth is usually needed on the final push for home as older legs are starting to tire.
This is also pretty much the ethos I have for the mix of shepherds that is required to keep our hills alive and thriving: wise older heads and fresh youthful legs. Unfortunately the faces around the sale rings that I attend seem to be getting older, despite the need for new young blood.
The North Highland College in Thurso, a satellite of the University of the Highlands and Islands, runs an excellent gamekeeping with wildlife management course. The prospective young keepers are paired up with sporting estates which will offer a work placement, with accommodation included. They gain practical, hands-on training from deer management through to public relations.
For me it’s a joy to see the tweed-wearing youngsters heading down the town in Thurso for their lunch if I happen to be in for shopping or supplies. They wear their tweeds with pride, and have obviously worked hard to get a placement on this highly-regarded course.
The students that I know who have attended the Thurso campus have all managed to find work in their chosen profession, which is a great testament to the college, estates and trainees.
I believe if a practical shepherding course could be run in a similar way in our area it would make a real difference to the dynamics of our industry. I know that we all need to embrace technology and change. The fact of the matter is that many of us are already using a great deal of technology in our daily life but there is no way that you can learn to work a dog, or gather a hill, sitting at a computer screen.
I had the great pleasure of meeting a new fresh face on his way to the ring in Lairg this week. He had his uncle’s sheep and he had his name, Rory, imprinted onto the horned handle of his stick. I don’t think he would be much more than ten years old, but his intense passion was not lost on any of us that had the pleasure to meet him.
Lets hope that Rory will not be another lost talent to our industry and that he can fulfil all his dreams of a shepherding career, which would only be aided by a good practical hands-on training.