And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Luke 2.8
I AM looking at a Suffolk landscape, framed by my study window. The bottom half of the picture is faded tussocky winter grass. The quarter above is a wedge of slate-blue estuary, dotted with waders: redshank, curlews, and oystercatchers. It is bordered by reeds the colour of old gold. The rest is clear sky.
Six Norfolk Horn ewes enter from the right, and perambulate slowly across the canvas, grazing as they move. They have neat, black faces and legs, and short, curved horns. There is a pause, and then into view comes a darker, stockier, ovine figure, limping slightly. His head is adorned with a flourish of magnificent, curled horns with sharp, threatening points. He is followed by another four ewes.
This is the Blythburgh Norfolk Horn flock, in which my wife and I have a one-third share. We have been in this house for just over seven years, and there have been sheep on the ten-acre field that lies between our house and the River Blyth for most of the time that we have been here. But neither the field nor the sheep were mine: they simply formed part of the bucolic landscape. Since we started this three-way consortium with some neighbours, I look at them entirely differently, and with closer attention.
The experience also makes me read biblical accounts of sheep and shepherds — not least the night-time flock-watchers of the nativity story — with a different eye. Appropriately enough, our meadow is known locally as Angel Field.
I GREW up in west London, and spent most of my adult life in north London; so I am hardly a son of the soil. This means that, in my mid-sixties, I’m starting an informal apprenticeship under the guidance of my co-conspirators, Adam and Will, whose combined ages more or less add up to mine.
But I’ve nursed the dream of a rustic life since the age of about four, so I have some catching up to do. I stumbled into sheep ownership because the field came up for rent, and I had an interest in protecting what I could see. Adam is an experienced shepherd who wanted to build up a new flock, and Will — who, like Adam, works in conservation — was keen to get some stock of his own. Our interests coincided.
The Norfolk Horn is a rare breed: one of the oldest in Britain. It is believed to be descended from the ancient Saxon black-faced sheep once prevalent in northern Europe. The breed developed in the relative isolation of East Anglia, but it declined to such a degree that, by the end of the 19th century, there were barely 300 remaining. They are excellent foragers with an ability to thrive on lower-grade pasture like our field, which has poor, sandy soil.
ADAM had a handful of Norfolk Horns in his previous flock, to which, in May, we added six young ewes who have never previously lambed, with a view to increasing our numbers. My wife and I have named two of the ewes after our own mothers, Bea and Winnie, in the hope that that they’ll be the start of a new generation.
At the end of October, we bought a Norfolk Horn ram, with a grand name, from a prize-winning flock. We decided that he needed a friendlier sobriquet, and so, with his Norfolk connections, TV currency, and other characteristics, Ed Balls was introduced to his harem.
The timing was important, because we want our ewes to lamb in spring, towards the end of March. Lambing in winter is risky: the field is exposed, and, and when a north-easterly blows, there is nothing between us and the Urals.
Three-year-old Ed is more polite with his harem than I was expecting (I have no idea whether this is normal behaviour). I have watched him approach his chosen ewe, nudge her gently with his head, rub his right leg against her flank, and stand next to her a while, until she nudged him back. This “courtship” ritual went on for two or three minutes before he mounted her (three times in quick succession). And then the two settled back to their ruminant grazing.
These efforts have taken their toll. Ed has lost weight (it is not unusual for a ram to lose 15 per cent of his condition when “tupping”). And spending so much time on his hind legs has given him what we think is a bit of thigh twang (not a technical term), which is why he’s hobbling slightly.
FOR me, part of the reason for moving to the country was the attraction of living closer to the land. I have a cheerfully panentheistic turn of mind (not to be confused with pantheism): a hunch that everything is in God, and God is in everything — even though this was labelled a heresy in the recent Church Times theology series.
The intention was to become more earthed, grounded in the rhythm of the seasons, drawn in to the circle of birth, life, growth, and death.
The celebrated TV shepherd Amanda Owen, the author of A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, talks about how a group of hill sheep in the Yorkshire Dales will stick to their own patch of moorland — as their mothers did, and their lambs will continue to do — despite there being no boundaries to stop them from roaming. “The word for this is ‘heafing’,” Amanda says. “The sheep are ‘heafed’ or ‘hefted’ or ‘hoofed’ on to their part of the moors.” I can feel this happening to me in Suffolk.
Amanda is even more embedded. She also grew up a townie, but — inspired by the James Herriot vet books — nursed a dream of becoming a shepherd. Now, at the age of 41, with her husband and eight children, she farms Ravenseat: 2000 acres with 1000 sheep, alongside chickens, pigs, cows, and horses.
She describes the almost spiritual rootedness she feels to the place. “For me, the winter is when I really feel a special connection with the land. . . Days are short; so inevitably you will be out foddering the sheep at either sunrise, sunset, or maybe both. There’s a cold lifelessness in the earth — everything is so raw and quiet out on the moors. You can see for miles: heather, peat hags, and big skies overhead.
”It’s truly timeless: there is nothing to tell you what century you are in. To the untrained eye, it [might appear] a dark, barren, and featureless landscape, but for me it’s not at all foreboding — it is where I feel at home. The sheep are heafed to Ravenseat, and so, too, I am attached to the place by an invisible bond.
”I imagine the shepherds that have gone before me, walked the same trods, and gathered their flocks to shelter in the same stone-built folds that I use. Whether this feeling of belonging can be called spiritual I don’t know, but it certainly clears my head and inspires me.”
THE practice of keeping sheep is also almost timeless. They were among the first animals to be domesticated by our farming ancestors in Mesopotamia between 9000 and 11,000 years ago. And shepherds have a long and honourable history in the Bible. Adam (from Genesis, rather than Blythburgh) and Eve’s second-born son, Abel, was “a keeper of sheep”, as was Abraham. As youths, both Moses and David looked after sheep — implying that this was a good grounding for the shepherding of nations.
It seems, however, that — at least by Jesus’s time — Israel’s religious leaders, while revering the symbolic idea of the shepherd, in practice reviled actual sheep-herders. Herding sheep was a proscribed trade, and considered unclean: a shepherd was first-century Palestine’s equivalent to a second-hand car salesman.
The sometime Professor of Oriental Law at the University of London, J. Duncan M. Derrett, noted this incongruity: “The shepherd was despised socially on account of his flocks’ eating private property, whatever prestige the occupation of shepherd might have in the eyes of the allegorists.”
This adds freight to the presence of the shepherds at the birth of Jesus. It is a significant decision to hand such a pivotal part as testifying to the incarnation to such “unreliable” witnesses. But then it mirrors Jesus’s eccentric choice of disciples, and his delivery of the task of living out the gospel to flawed people like us.
NO ANGELS have yet appeared to Amanda Owen over Ravenseat. “But I should say that, at Christmas, there is a special feeling around the farm. There are no outwardly obvious signs to say that it’s Christmas: no Christmas lights, or incessant playing of Slade; I feel that it is Christmas in its purest form.
We celebrate with our family, and carry on feeding the animals. The children like to check the stables at midnight on Christmas Eve to see whether the horses are kneeling [as they eat their hay] in reverence to him that was born in a stable.”
Amanda didn’t even get the chance to play a shepherd in a nativity play as a child. “Unfortunately, there were no boys at Sunday school, and being taller than all the other girls meant that I had to be Joseph,” she says, ruefully. “I didn’t like this, wearing a shamargh wrapped around my head and sporting a painted beard, while escorting the beautiful Mary with blue flowing gown.”
She does respond to other biblical shepherd references, however, and recognises in Psalm 23 the need in life for “some form of guidance, whether it be a sheep or a person”.
And she personally conforms to the example of the Good Shepherd who goes in search of a lost sheep: “Losing a sheep is more common than you think, especially on a hill farm, as they graze out on the open moors,” she says. “I feel a responsibility for every sheep, and, if one strays, then I will endeavour to find it and bring it back to the flock.”
IN PALESTINE, the contemporary shepherding experience has, at heart, changed little since biblical times. Bedouin or more settled herders still keep relatively small flocks on sparse terrain, constantly moving to make the most of meagre provender. The shepherds in Luke’s Gospel were living in land occupied by the Romans. These days, the irony is that Palestinian shepherds keep their sheep on land occupied by Israelis.
Jibrin Moussa Haram was born in Qawawis, a community of shepherds in the South Hebron Hills. His family had fields of wheat and barley, sheep, and olive trees. Then, in the mid-1980s, the Israeli government established the Susya settlement (illegally under international law), on Palestinian land near by. Settlers began to encroach on the shepherds’ land, and to throw stones at them. Nine years ago, they fired shots at Jibrin, and moved their sheep on to his field.
Then the Israeli government built an outpost in nearby Avigayil, and, to reach it, constructed a road on Jibrin’s land, meaning that he lost roughly 2.5 acres. The Israeli military subsequently declared more of his land to be a closed military area — part of Firing Zone 918 — costing him a further 125 acres. Jibrin risks being shot or imprisoned if he goes there. He used to have 250 sheep; now he has 50.
INTERNATIONAL organisations, and Israelis who oppose the occupation, have been supporting the shepherds, finding lawyers to challenge land confiscation. Jibrin’s case has been with the Israeli government for two years, but it is a slow and expensive process.
Shooting at shepherds has stopped, but there is still harassment, and they complain that they are given no protection. “The army sees everything, but does nothing,” Jibrin says. “A settler can ride a quad bike through a grazing flock, and no one cares.”
Apart, that is, from Jibrin himself. He is still prepared to challenge intruders. “Why are you here?” he asked one settler who was walking on his land.
”I’m here for the Israeli government,” the settler replied, “but you are poor people. You’re here for nobody.”
Jibrin will not be moved. “Ibrahim, the father of the Jews and the Palestinians, was a shepherd, just as we are now. My life and my company are the sheep and the plants. I know no other life. I just want to live in peace.”
”Peace on earth, good will towards men,” the heavenly host proclaimed. Not yet, for shepherds in this part of the world.
IN THE Yorkshire Dales, this companionship with creation is shared by Amanda. “Being a shepherd has taught me many things,” she says. “Most importantly, that keeping things as close [as possible] to nature is best. Much of what we do is done in the old-fashioned way, but these ways are tried and tested, and the more you go against nature, the more problems you create.”
I still have a great deal to learn. Amanda, Jibrin, Adam, Will, Ed, Winnie, and Bea will be my shepherds, making me lie down in green pastures; leading me by still waters. And restoring my soul.
A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen is out now (£16.99; CT Bookshop £15.30), and will be published in paperback in January.
Jibril’s story is courtesy of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI): www.eappi.org
Malcolm Doney is a freelance writer and broadcaster, and an Anglican priest.