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Come by, walk on!

Discover secret passageways used by generations of shepherds.

If there is one group of people best suited for devising walks, it is the nation’s dwindling band of shepherds.

Think about it – there they are, whatever the weather, out on the moors each day, twice a day, sometimes thrice a day, walking every moorland nook and wild valley cranny as they go about tending their free-ranging flocks. While walking for most of us is a pleasurable diversion, for shepherds it is a livelihood.

Jon Monks is one such shepherd. Based just south of the ‘sacred’ mountain Simonside, and with a flock of more than 1,500 sheep to look after, 34-year-old Jon know the hills around here like the back of his sheepdog, and has been walking them for at least a third of his life. Most of us must be green with envy for that kind of hillwalking opportunity and experience.

Well, you need not be. For Jon has chosen to share his walking and shepherding life with us through an innovative website, from which walkers can download a selection of Northumberland, Cumbria or Borders trails devised by Jon while out with his sheep.

Not only do these guides take you to some of the most remote and beautiful spots in these areas – using trails and locations that previously only the shepherds were aware of – but they also divulge some shepherding secrets and ways of life, handed down over generations. When walking one of Jon’s routes, you get an inkling of what it must be like to work a flock on these rugged landscapes.

Kim Hobson, Northumberland National Park Authority’s sustainable tourism officer, and I join Jon at his farm for part of his Fontburn Reservoir walk, which winds through the ruddy hills and partially forested valleys in which his own sheep graze. It is a blustery midwinter day as we set out from his wonderfully remote 19th-century farmhouse and head up the track, sheepdog Jess trying hard to keep us all in tow. Greenleighton Hill lies before us, along with the distinctively stepped Simonside, brooding and omnipresent on the skyline.

We’re heading for a ‘stell’ on the hilltop. Jon explains that a stell is a circular, or sometimes square, drystone enclosure in which you can keep sheep. It might be used, for example, if a ewe has had a difficult lambing.

The great thing about walking with Jon, whether it is with him in person or with one of his walk guides, is that odd features in the landscape – a flock of sheep on a certain stretch of hillside, a patch of moorland, a stone enclosure – that were once misunderstood by the walker are brought alive with his imparted knowledge.

“It’s important that people in towns and cities get some idea of what takes place in the countryside, and what the people who work there are doing,” he says.

We continue on to a ridge above Fontburn Reservoir, the wind-blown grass setting ablaze hillside fields with its distinctive fiery colour. Jon explains that he shares the responsibility for the 1,500 sheep with a shepherdess nearby.

“The land and farm is owned by the The National Trust. Our sheep graze, 1,300 acres,” he says, sweeping his shepherd’s crook across the landscape. “I look after half of them – three of the six hefts.”

Kim and I look puzzled at this esoteric term, so Jon explains as we walk. It turns out that ‘hefting’ is at the very heart of shepherding. “A hefted sheep is one with a ‘herd memory’,” says Jon, “A sheep that has learnt its home grazing territory. It is important to have hefted sheep, so the flock stays together, and so we know where to find them on the moors.”

“Lambs learn the heft as they get older. To say that I have three hefts means I have three flocks of sheep that know three distinct areas of the land. I have between 100 and 160 sheep in each heft.”

We reach a fold in the hillside to see one of Jon’s flocks scattered on the grass below, grazing nonchalantly in the way sheep do. Jon puts Jess to work. The bracing Northumberland breeze is soon filled with the peculiar words and whistles with which Jon communicates with his four-legged partner.

“Come by,” which I later learn means go left, is carried to us on the wind; then, “away to me,” meaning go right; and then “walk on,” meaning push the flock forward. Before long, Jon’s disparate flock is standing before Kim and I as one, not a fleece out of place, nor a bleat of discontent.

It is a rare treat indeed to see such harmony between man and beast, and to learn something of a rural way of life that has moorland trails at its very heart.