Welsh Shepherd

January 25, 2014Riverbend Tales
Author: David S. Thomson DVM

After college and before vet school, I worked for four months as an assistant shepherd on the slopes of Mount Snowdon in North Wales. It was a great job, despite the fact that it rained pretty much all the time. But in my thick wool coat and Wellington boots, I didn’t care. I was paid 40 pounds a week, all in one-pound notes. I felt rich.

The early mornings were spent on the old tractor, plowing slop out of the cowshed, the rich sour smell of silage and manure settling in my clothes. I let the cows out into the field and spread hay bales out behind the tractor because the grass was quite thin.

For the rest of the day, I was out in the fields with the sheep. Lambs are cute as a button, bouncy, curious, cuddly, and sweet. Sheep are stubborn and stupid. Elwyn, the master shepherd, had two dogs, Rye and Rye’s puppy. Rye did all the work. The puppy, which was in training, just ran after Rye. Elwyn would drive the jeep out to the edge of the field, open up the back, and let the dogs out. Then cupping a match against the rain, he would light a cigarette and tell Rye, “Go back.”

Rye was off, over the hill and out of sight, while Elwyn leaned against the edge of the gate. He had nothing to say to me. He spoke fine English, but when I was around he spoke only Welsh. By the time the cigarette was half smoked, the sheep were through the gate, and the dogs had jumped back in the jeep. Elwyn would take one more drag on his cigarette, close the gate and drive off. I walked.

I spent many a day rebuilding rock walls, as the farm had fallen into ruin. The owner, Sir Michael Duff, had fallen on hard times, and the estate was being sold off piece by piece. He still lived in the mansion, though it too was being sold. He invited me (he called me his “gentle shepherd”) over for drinks and would tell of the night Fred Astaire danced in the garden, leaping over the hedges. But now the walls were falling down, the fields were being sold, and much of the mansion was closed off and unheated.

Nonetheless, it was a beautiful place. And quite often busloads of tourists would stop at the edge of the fields, and the folks would clamber out to photograph me, “the traditional Welsh shepherd,” at work. I would say nothing so as not to disappoint them.

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