Friday, 24 November 2017

‘Eight, nine, ten …’ Why people are counting sheep in Cheddar Gorge

The audit of a feral flock at the Somerset beauty spot is significant

Sunday 19 November 2017 00.04 GMT

There is a shaggy creation myth surrounding the feral sheep of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. The story goes that during a poker game in the village in 1992 one of the gamblers, running out of money, put his seven sheep up as his stake. He lost, so the winner took the animals home and put them in his garden. The next morning the winner’s wife looked out of her window to see the new arrivals eating the garden ... and the sheep had to go.

Where they went is what draws 35 people to a layby in the chilly morning shadow of Cheddar Gorge. The winner of the two rams and five ewes deposited them on the craggy hillside there a quarter of a century ago, where they have been ever since – the seven becoming 10, becoming 50, then within five years 100 and now, well, who knows?

Hence the annual sheep count organised by the National Trust – an attempt to quantify one of England’s only flocks of feral sheep. There are feral goats in the gorge too, but ownerless sheep are something of a rarity.

Soay sheep, the variety roaming free in the gorge, are smaller than regular ones, are typically chocolate coloured, still have their tails and have the distinction of being self-shedding. But to know all that, you need first to be able to find them.

Dr David Bullock, leader of the count and the Trust’s head of nature conservation, herds together the counters, a mixture of staffers, volunteers and students in land management and agriculture from the nearby Bridgwater and Taunton College.

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