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From: the Foreword, by the Duke of Norfolk.
The Shepherd of Sussex might pass along his way, but it is for us who follow to see that this happy hunting ground shall be for ever left open against the day of his return.
From the chapter: The Opening Chapter:
Nelson Coppard can be trusted to express his opinion without hesitation, and as we sat on an old machine-frame beside a barn and discussed the various ways of recording details remembered by shepherds he showed a preference for a series of accounts of actual interviews.
‘We will begin now,’ said Nelson, in his quaint direct way; ‘you ask me what you want to know, an’ I’ll tell you all I can, an’ you put it down: then, if ‘t seems all right, you can do t’ same to t’ next one!’ Between us we arranged the principal points for enquiry and subsequently I found that his idea appealed equally to other men I visited. They welcomed the plan of a book devoted to themselves and their craft, and responded willingly to requests for details of their lives and information on many subjects. Family treasures were unearthed; old days were remembered again; names and places were quoted, and I was able to follow many trails which resulted in the gathering of valuable facts regarding former habits that had been almost forgotten under the stress of modern ways in sheep-farming.
From the chapter: Some Typical Sussex Shepherds:
Nelson Coppard was born at Poynings in 1869. His father was shepherd on Dyke Hill for eighteen years. He started work very early as shepherd boy at Horton, near Beeding. Then he became teg boy to Eli Page, of Patcham, and later he served as under-shepherd at Saddlescombe. Since then he has been shepherd at Truleigh, Iford, America (between Firle and Newhaven), Balmer near Falmer, and Mary Farm, Falmer. He is now at Pangdean Fam by Clayton Mills.
To write a full account of Mr Coppard as I know him would be a long story. He was the first shepherd I ever met. From him I had my first instruction on sheep-bells, crooks, and the details of a shepherd’s life. To the lucky natives of Sussex a meeting with a shepherd is just an ordinary incident in a Downland ramble, but to a Londoner, blessed with an artistic temperament, that first sudden entry into a little valley full of sheep with their ancient bells chiming, the meeting with a jovial shepherd with his glittering crook, the chat with him, and the return journey, when I carried home wild flowers and two large canister bells, was overwhelming. I felt that I had stepped into a new world.
My anxiety to learn amused the shepherd. It was a fresh experience for him to find anybody so eager for the information he cold impart. Though I have since found many shepherds and gathered a store of memories, I do not forget that our first meeting was the start of a long series of rambles which have at last ended in the making of this record.
There is always something of interest or something quaint to note down after a visit to Nelson. Today, as I stood on the hill by Pyecombe Church, I could see his fold at the edge of Pangdean Farm. I was not expecting to hear music from sheep-bells, knowing that it is his custom to remove most of them and keep them in his hut at this time of the year; I was therefore startled by the deafening burst of sound which greeted me as I approached the fold. The din did not stop until I actually passed the first barrier of wattles and furze branches. Behind these I found the shepherd and his son-in-law, Ted Nutley, holding the bells and laughing heartily at their success in ‘ringing me in’. ‘I was just taking the bells into the hut,’ explained Nelson, ‘when Nutley saw you coming along. I know you like to hear the bells when you come, so we rung ‘em for ye!’
After dinner we inspected the flock. The shepherd pointed out a dead lamb. It was well grown but had collapsed and died suddenly, as is sometimes the case. We fetched the ewes from another fold. The flock spread out, as mothers and children, making a babel of cries in various keys, sorted themselves and were gradually united. One ewe, wandering about and calling plaintively for her baby, at last found the body of the lamb. Nelson approached, crook in hand; caught the ewe and examined her. ‘Thought so!’ he exclaimed; ‘she be full of milk!’ and he led her into the fold and secured her in a pen. Then he sharpened his knife, fetched the dead lamb, cut through its skin round the joints of the forelegs and slit down the chest, and in a few minutes off came its woolly jacket, quite clean and inside out. This was at one turned, fitted with string and hung on a stick ready for use. A lamb that was not getting milk owing to the temporary sickness of its mother was caught and dressed in the dead lamb’s skin. He was quite big enough for it – it fitted him as closely as a suit of combinations when it was tied on. The lamb’s movements provoked a smile, and Nelson said: ‘He be like we when we gets a new suit – it don’t feel jus’ right at first!’
The ears on the skin gave the baby a quaint appearance; at first sight one might have thought that a lamb with four ears was on show. Now began the troublesome task of persuading the baby to feed from its foster-mother. After many patient efforts the shepherd succeeded, and although the ewe sniffed suspiciously at the lamb at first the two had accepted each other before we left them.
Mr Coppard’s flocks have varied greatly in number on various farms, but he states that in a general way the flocks kept now are much smaller than in past days. Many other changed have taken place. He has no use now for the big dipping hook which he used at the sheep-wash, as this part of the shepherd’s work has died out in most districts.
I questioned him about sheep marking. Ordinary marking on the wool with a stick dipped in colour has been his usual practice, but he has had many sheep earmarked with holes and snicks in the ears, also some few pedigree sheep which had ‘ear-rings’ - small brass or other metal tickets fastened to the ear by a ring. Tattooed marks inside the ear stamped with a special punch are now found in Southdown sheep from registered flocks. A ewe was caught for inspection. The flock number, ‘550’, was stamped inside, and there was also a round hole punched through near the tip and a triangular snick taken out of the edge. Punched marks are often used as a record of age, and are a more reliable guide than the animals’ teeth.
I was collecting notes about shepherds’ clothes and Mr Coppard stated that good corduroy suits and gaiters, with a hard felt ‘bowler’ hat had been his usual dress, but his father wore a smock, ‘a blue one’, he said, ‘not like the slaty-colour one I got for you, but blue - what you might call a butcher blue. He always wore that over his corduroys, and in bad weather an overcoat on top o’ that! I only wish I had one o’ those overcoats,’ he remarked, ‘but you couldn’ get such a thing nowadays. Ther were thick and fleecy. I remember my father wore a white one, though there were allsorts about. In my young days a shepherd could sometimes get hold of an old cavalry cloak. They were fine things to keep ye dry!’
Nelson is noted among other shepherds for his fondness for sheep-bells and good dogs. He says there used to be far more dogs of the rough-haired type in his young days, and fewer collies than at present. A stranger once said to him: ‘Your dog obeys you well, shepherd – you must have paid him pretty much to get him to obey you like he does!’ Nelson could hardly believe that he had aright. At last he said: ‘If I ‘paid’ you, as you calls it, would you do any work for me afterwards?’ ‘No, I wouldn’t,’ said the stranger. ‘I guess I’d keep out of your way.’ ‘Very well, then,’ exclaimed Nelson, ‘’tis the same with a dog – you got to teach by talking to him, not by paying him. You’ll never teach a dumb animal to like you by paying him!’
The shepherd has a keen sense of humour, and a very dry way, as those who chat to him soon discover. His quaint answers and remarks have already provided me with materials for many paragraphs. He told me of his interview with ‘an old grey-whiskered gentleman in riding kit’ who had just returned from a hunt. ‘Dear me, shepherd,’ he said, ‘my feet ache and my legs ache so much I don’t know how to walk’. ‘Well, I suppose you’ve bin on’ em a good time, haven’t ye?’ asked Nelson. ‘No,’ said the hunter, ‘it isn’t that, for I’ve been riding all day!’ Whereupon Nelson remarked, in his usual dry way, ‘You don’t get my meaning – I mean you’ve had ‘em a good long time, surely!’ – and then the old gentleman saw the joke.
Other little tales and comments passed the time away. Nelson had saved some old ox shoes he had found and told me that black runts, used for ploughing and other work, were once bought and sold at Steyning. Then the mention of Michael Blann’s name recalled the fact that Mr Blann [shepherd from Patching] once cut out a sundial in the turf for him to use. He was shepherd boy in those days. He stayed out all day and was provided with his lunch. This was generally the top half of a loaf. Sometimes it was pulled open on the soft side and some butter put in it, but if there was no butter he had a piece of fat bacon out of the brine crock. He recalled a certain day when he sat on the brow of a hill to have his lunch with a companion. The loaf-top slipped from his hand, and rolled and bumped and danced all down the slope ‘like a cannonball.’ They both laughed to see it go. It was too far to fetch it, and Nelson lost his lunch, but the loss was forgotten in amusement at the incident, and today the thought of that rolling loaf-top still brings a smile to his face.
It is refreshing to meet with someone as outspoken as this shepherd. ‘I think it be the best way,’ he once remarked to me. ‘I says what I thinks, an’ I talks in front o’ people as I talks behind their backs! If what you thinks be right then, what you says will be right too!’
I could still write many pages about Nelson Coppard, but those who wish can find him on the hills and prove for themselves that he can be a very entertaining companion.
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