‘The ship kept thic down.’ My new neighbour grinned at his own wit, using dialect to confuse me. ‘Why auld Buck never had fence out front. The ship mowed for him.’
He had followed my gaze to the steep bank at the front of the cottage. Mid summer and it was up to my knees in grass and weeds. Or what I thought of then as weeds. There was a fence now, of sorts, at the top of the bank, holding in a narrow strip of grass with proper weeds – the prickly kind, the dandelion kind (yes, I know, a flower in the wrong place) and the docks kind. Two elderly rosemary bushes with twisted arthritic branches pushed against the fence. Which would go first? As it turned out, it was the rosemary, sadly.
‘Oh, the sheep!’ I made my voice knowing, but the truth was I’d been totally ignorant about the sheep until we came to the area a year before, seeking our ‘ever after’ home.
‘Someone’s sheep are out,’ I said to my husband as we whizzed along behind the estate agent’s shiny BMW. ‘Do you think they know?’
Being from suburbia, I didn’t take in the incongruity of sheep – out or not – in a forest. No farms here.
‘Free sheep,’ he told me. He knew the area a little because some cousin had once lived nearby.
‘Free? We can toss one in the back of the car and have roast lamb for weeks?’
‘Ha! No, free roaming. Has a special name, commoning.’
Over the months of looking, buying, renovating, we visited our new home often but rarely saw sheep. Just within the statutory boundary, the cottage wasn’t far off the A48, not in the heart of the Forest. So my neighbour’s comment took me by surprise.
‘The free sheep?’ I said, seeking to impress with my local knowledge. ‘Were they here?’
‘All the time.’ He’d lived in this hamlet over thirty years, and had family links to the Forest going back generations. ‘All over, on the green’–he nodded at the sloping field beside the cottage–‘and in the garden too if you didn’t keep the buggers out.’ He shook his head. ‘Didn’t want them in the gardens, but needed them in the Forest. Kept the rubbish down, the brambles, the bracken. All overgrown now, a different looking Forest.’
‘Commoning. That’s what it’s called, right?’
He nodded. ‘Been going on in the Forest 800 years. Problem is, the commoners are getting on a bit and no one wants to take it up these days. No money in it, too hard.’
It was my other neighbour, the one with the smallholding and the ancient orchard, who told me about the foot and mouth disease that led to the sheep slaughter five years earlier. She used to keep sheep herself.
‘Never again,’ she said. ‘They took them all away. Perfectly healthy beasts. Didn’t matter. They killed them, burned the carcasses on the rec field.’
The recreation field, in the village at the bottom of the hill from our hamlet,  only half a mile away.
‘The smoke, the smell …’ She blinked and turned away. ‘Not had sheep since. Broke my heart.’
Broke mine too.
Not long after, walking the dog along a Forest trail, I came across a stone memorial dedicated to the 4,000 sheep slaughtered during the foot and mouth outbreak. It beggared belief. 4,000 sheep and an 800 year old tradition reduced to a handful of creatures grazing along the verges of Forest roads, dodging cars, and with brambles tangled in their wool because with so few, what kept the brambles down now?
Not everyone was sad about the loss of the sheep. A lack of sheep poo on footpaths, less intrusion into vegetable patches and some controversial views on how well these animals were looked after made it seem inevitable the tradition would die out with the last of the commoners. And there was also the danger to the increasing traffic as more tourists found their way here. Sad that people see the sheep as the problem. It was said that once upon a time, when the sheep numbered in the thousands, they were the best traffic control through the Forest. Impossible to go fast in those days.
I found myself on the side of the sheep. Sometimes, when walking across the green, I’d have fanciful notions of getting the community to run a few sheep there. And fanciful they stayed. A shame, but …
Last week an article in the local newspaper took my eye. A young woman has brought in a small flock of hardy sheep to graze an area of the Forest. She’s meeting with the commoners. My lazy heart gladdened. Someone else, younger and with more energy no doubt, was taking up the flag.
Will there be 4,000 sheep roaming the Forest again in a few years’ time? Keeping down the bracken and the brambles? Slowing the traffic? Will 800 years turn to 900, a thousand?
I think so. Maybe I’ll get a few ‘ship’ of my own after all.