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One man and his walks

People who work the land often seem to come from a long line of forebears all born into the life.

So it’s surprising to find that while Northumbrian shepherd Jon Monks (36) may carry the obligatory staff, he has no farming blood whatsoever.

He grew up in St Helens near Liverpool, his father a professional French horn player who worked for the BBC and his mother was a school secretary.

While his brother Paul became a scientist, Jon’s enthusiasm for outdoor life led him to leave school at 16 to work on a farm.

After attending agricultural college his first job was on an Australian sheep station belonging to Rupert Murdock.

New venture

Later, he found work at the Newbury estate owned by Lord Caernarvon before coming to a farm in Kirkharle, Northumberland, 14 years ago.

“I remember being told by a lecturer that the main objective of sheep is to die,” recalls Jon, “And my job was to keep the beggars alive!”

“There’s nothing I like more than being out there on the hills looking after them.”

But it’s not just sheep that Jon tends these days, as a chance conversation with a hotel landlady in nearby Rothbury six years ago set him off on a new venture.

She’d heard Jon chatting to hillwalkers who were staying at the hotel and was so impressed by his local knowledge she asked if he’d be interested in leading guided walks for other guests.

Then working full-time at a nearby farm and with wife, Jane, young family, Lois (now 7) and Harry (now 5), on the way, Jon didn’t think he’d have the time.

Instead, he offered to write directions for walks starting and ending at the hotel. Unfortunately, when he returned with the completed maps three months later it had a “For Let” sign outside. The landlady had sold up and left!

Reluctant to let his hard work go to waste, Jon posted his guides on a website created using a second-hand computer bought for £120. Two months later he was amazed when it got a mention in a Radio Times article.

“It was the dot-com era and I had this idea I could become an overnight millionaire. I drew up a business plan and in December 2000 got the website produced properly and sank our life savings in the project.”

Three months after launching the newly improved Shepherds Walks website, foot and mouth struck.

“I was a shepherd, living with my family in a tied cottage, thinking that if we lost the sheep we’d lose everything. And I’d just invested everything I had into a business that revolved round walking in the countryside.”

Yet in the months following the new site’s launch, Jon started receiving requests asking if he also took people walking in the hillsides with him. Picking up on the idea in that first year he conducted five outings, guiding a total of 70 people.

Hundreds flock for a stroll in the hills with devoted shepherd Jon

Last year more than 600 customers flocked to Northumberland to see the countryside from the unique perspective of a working shepherd and his two border collies Jess and Gypsy.

“I work closely with travel companies who bring walkers here by the busload. Over New Year I had a group of 22 Scousers out with me.”

“We get lots of single ladies who don’t want to walk alone but are happy to join our group. We recently had an 85-year-old lady who did over four miles with a walking stick, which was fantastic.”

As well as his guides to walks in the Northumberland area Jon has expanded to take in Cumbria and the Scottish Borders.

“When researching an area I speak to local farmers who often have in-depth knowledge and can tell me stories about things like where planes crashed during the war. This is what brings the walks to life.”

Unlike conventional walking books, Jon’s guides can be quickly updated so if there’s a major problem such as a bridge coming down he’ll re-walk the route and e-mail out new instructions within 24 hours.

He sells an average 100 of his walking guides every day, each costing £1.50 and mostly sold through his website. He sends out 20,000 newsletters every month.

In 2003, Jon’s third year of trading the business broke even. Turnover doubled the following year and doubled again in 2005.


One of his biggest customers, Northumberland National Park, is so impressed they take Jon to conferences on environmental tourism all over the country. In return, he donates part of his turnover towards environmental projects in the park.

In May last year he finally gave up full-time shepherding and took on a business unit in a converted farm building in Kirkharle, which gives him retail and office space.

Within months he was missing his old job.

“In a moment of insanity I got myself 10 acres of land and invested my hard-earned cash in 33 Scottish blackface sheep which I bought from the farmer I used to work for.”

“I was quite fond of them” he laughs, “They don’t make me any money and just wander around eating grass.”

“Previously shepherding paid my bills and Shepherds Walks was my hobby. Now it’s the other way round.