“We saved them from becoming lamb chops,” says Nicola Matthews with a smile. We’re trudging uphill on a muddy trail at the family’s 220-acre organic farm deep in Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) National Park, with several docile sheep in tow and a veil of misty drizzle obscuring the view of the surrounding peaks.
It was the desire to bring people closer to sheep that inspired father-daughter sheep-whispering team Paul and Nicola Matthews to set up Jacob Sheep Trekking back in 2014. With “patience, food and calm cuddles”, they tamed and trained a small flock of native Jacob sheep and have never looked back.
“The Jacobs were all reject lambs that hadn’t met the pedigree standard for breeding, so we decided to give them a chilled life eating, strolling and sleeping,” explains Nicola. They were wild little things initially, but they soon came around and some were quickly as placid as puppies. Over the past nine years, we’ve tamed lots of different rare-breed sheep, from hardy, docile Jacobs to tiny, gentle Breton Ouessants, the world’s smallest sheep, and Blacknoses, the world’s cutest sheep, originally from the Valais region of Switzerland.”
We’ve only been walking for a few minutes and I’m swiftly discovering that sheep can be fickle: affectionate, funny, sprightly, lazy and plain stubborn.
Sheep have personalities — given that I live in a sheep-farming community in the nearby Cambrian Mountains, I certainly know that. From my window, I can see hundreds of sheep bobbling the hillsides. Their bleating brings music to my days, and at night it rocks me to sleep as stars blaze away in inky skies. But the sheep are such a constant that they just blend into the landscape. Only now am I considering the individuals beyond the flock.
The pace is more a dawdle than a dash as we ramble uphill. Socks, a friendly Blacknose sheep with dreadlocks, turns out to have diva-like tendencies, dodging the puddles so as not to get wet hooves and occasionally strutting off to the hedgerows to snack on ash leaves. Then there’s Jester, a piebald Jacob, a maverick and born leader, who apparently prefers humans to his fellow sheep. He doesn’t do hills. As we plod up the slope, past moss-furred drystone walls, he dilly-dallies like a donkey, only reluctantly budging when the treat bag is opened.
Until this morning, sheep trekking as a concept sounded a bit bonkers. Alpacas, llamas and ponies, sure — but sheep? Everyone knows that sheep are natural social-distancers, bolshily standing their ground until you get within a few feet, then fleeing quicker than you can say baa. But now I’m here, it doesn’t seem so crazy after all. Wales is, after all, a country of 10 million sheep, with a 3:1 sheep-to-human ratio, so what could be more Welsh than taking one for a walk?
“People are used to sheep dashing away, so it’s quite a surreal experience when a field of sheep comes bounding towards you, leaping and jumping with excitement and joy,” says Nicola, as we wend through wildflower meadows, ashen skies on the horizon threatening rain.
Following a good back scratch, Socks and I are getting along just fine, as we linger at the highest point of the farm at 1,300ft. It’s a view to make you forgive the wicked Welsh weather anything: a beautiful meadow sloping down to a row of Scots pines and hills plaited with hedgerows beyond. The summits are hiding in cloud, but I’m familiar enough with the area to fill in the details: to the east is Pen y Fan, the highest peak, and immediately southwest, the dark, still waters of Llyn y Fan Fach, steeped in the myths of the Lady of the Lake.
“We’re in the process of training more local Welsh breeds to walk, too,” confides Nicola, as the heavens begin to open. “The approach will be the same: to tame sheep, you need patience, a relaxed, can-do attitude and — most importantly — lots of bribes.”
As we head back downhill to the farm, we’re pelted with slanting rain that drenches us within seconds. With soggy fleeces, the sheep move now at a much jauntier pace and Nicola ushers us into a barn to escape the worst of the shower. Shivering and shaking, Socks and Jester snuggle up to the haystacks, not liking the rain at all.
Perhaps those Welsh newcomers will be able to teach them a trick or two.
Sheep trekking is available from April to September. If you fancy staying overnight, the farm has a pair of historic cottages and bell tents in a private wood.
A 90-minute sheep trek costs £25/20 per adult/child. Take waterproofs and wellies. Other experiences are available, including lambing and shear-a-sheep days.
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