Last month I visited Middleton Mount to carry out my regular site inspection and was accompanied by these inquisitive creatures. I’m always very happy to see the arrival of the sheep here in August when they begin their job of tidying up the long grass and smoothing out the shaggy late-summer silhouette of the mound.
I am sometimes asked why we have sheep on our sites. It is true that the presence of sheep requires visitors to keep their dogs on leads, and they do also distribute dung liberally – though their diet of grass makes this relatively innocuous. But sheep grazing is an effective and natural way to maintain grassland and prevent scrub encroachment which can damage below-ground archaeology through root penetration – and so they are a vital aspect of our site management.
Sheep on our sites at South Creake, Caistor and Tasburgh are managed through Higher-level Stewardship Schemes, supervised by Natural England, and our graziers follow detailed rules to ensure environmental benefits. Through letting out our grassland to these local graziers we also support traditional farming. Without the sheep, NAT would have to bring in contractors to cut the hay at significant expense.
Apart from these practical aspects of grazing, for me sheep bring animation and interest to our sites – especially in the spring, when the lambs are jumping – and they root us in the living countryside. And so, as it is National Poetry Day today, here is a sheep-themed extract from Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Squarings’ in which he writes about another favourite writer, Thomas Hardy, who remembered how, crossing a field of ewes when a child, he went on hands and knees and pretended to eat grass in order to see what the sheep would do. When he looked up he found them gathered around in a close ring, gazing at him with astonished faces.
I hope you enjoy your next visit to one of our ‘bleated-into, grassy spaces’…
Once, as a child, out in a field of sheep,
Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead
And lay down flat among their dainty shins.
In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space
He experimented with infinity.
His small cool brow was like an anvil waiting
For sky to make it sing the perfect pitch
Of his dumb being, and that stir he caused
In the fleece-hustle was the original
Of a ripple that would travel eighty years
Outward from there, to be the same ripple
Inside him at its last circumference.