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Sheep in Suffolk

What's it like to be a shepherd in Suffolk?

Andrew Capell and his dog Kite, both work for the National Trust, tending a flock of around 150 sheep on Suffolk's scenic coast. They spend the summer on the Trust's land at Orford Ness and then move the flock to Dunwich Heath and Sutton Hoo for winter grazing. Suffolk Shepherd Andrew Capell
 Suffolk Shepherd Andrew Capell, talking to visitors to the National Trust.

The sheep have an important role to play and help maintain the habitat of the nature reserve at Orford Ness. As well as helping with conservation, they are themselves part of a conservation project: “Most of our sheep are rare breeds and are on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watch list” says Andrew, “the Whitefaced Woodlands are some of the rarest sheep in the world.” He now breeds from his flock and this year his ewes had 40 lambs.

Shepherding is an occupation that's been carried out for thousands of years and although it may sound idyllic to some, it's physically tough work and it can take years of hands-on experience to become really skilled at it.

Sheep in Suffolk

Andrew has been a shepherd for much of his life. He spent two years at agricultural college and has had around 35 years shepherding experience, first in mid Wales and then in his native Leicestershire, before moving to Suffolk in 2002.

His summer commute to work is a rather lovely one, as he and Kite reach Orford Ness on the tiny ferry run by the National Trust. Once he arrives at his 'office', what does his average day look like?

“I get to work at 8.30am, have coffee and catch up with the rest of the team. Then I go round all the sheep to see if they are all okay and do any jobs like shearing, hay-making, moving electric fences and anything that’s needed to be done to help the site run like a well oiled machine. Then at 5.30pm it's back over the river to go to Sutton Hoo to have a look at the sheep there.”

Suffolk Shepherd Andrew Capell
Kite relaxes on his daily commute to work.

Andrew's work is not just about maintaining his flock of sheep, he also has an educational role to play and giving talks to visitors to the National Trust is all part of his routine work.

“In the week when we are open to visitors I do a sheep talk every day when I am on site, and talk about what the sheep do and how they help in the running of the nature reserve” he says. “And then I show them a bit about working with a dog - Kite is a member of staff and gets paid. My talk lasts around a hour and I have a bit of fun with it as well.”

You can watch Kite hard at work in the National Trust video "A Day in the Life of Kite the Sheepdog" below.

Working out in the fresh air in beautiful surroundings, it's not hard to understand why Andrew enjoys his work so much. “I love working with the sheep and Kite, no two days are the same and Orford Ness is a great place to work. I'm not one for working inside - give me a field full of sheep any day!”

Working with a sheepdog is an integral part of being a shepherd and forming a strong bond and working relationship is essential. Andrew got Kite when he was just a year old and trained him for three more years. “It takes time and some work but if you have a good pup from the start you are half way there” he says, before adding: “it's better to [come and] see my talk and see what sets Kite apart from other dogs.”

Shepherding in Suffolk with Andrew Capell
How has shepherding changed over the past 100 years? “If you take a tractor driver from 100 years ago, it would take him about half a day to learn about the new tractors we use today. If you took a cow man, it would take him a few days milking to get used to a new dairy. A shepherd from 100 years ago only needs to know one thing and that’s the name of the dog. Not much has changed, only that we use electricity when shearing, but I still do a few by hand every year.” Sheep shearing in Suffolk with Andrew Capell

To find out more, visit Orford Ness to catch one of Andrew's talks. They take place at 1.30pm on days when he is on site. Telephone 01728 648024 to check for dates.

You can also visit the English National Sheepdog Trials which takes place on 28th - 30th July at Haughley Park near Stowmarket to see sheepdogs in action.