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Profiles - A shepherd's perspective

Former shepherd Jon Monks now shares his knowledge of the Northumberland countryside with walkers and hikers.

"I've gone from shepherding sheep to shepherding people," Jon Monks says with a laugh.

It sounds like a joke but in many senses it's true.

For more than 15 years Jon worked as a shepherd, tending to the welfare of thousands of sheep in the Isle of Man, Australia, Newbury and latterly Northumberland.

Now, as the owner of Shepherds' Walks, based in Kirkharle, his top priority are the hundreds of walkers who join the company's guided holidays and walks each month.

"When you're taking people out walking you're looking through the group all the time, making sure everybody's ok and managing the situation," he says. "So it is very much looking after those people."

Farm work

Jon grew up in the urban environment of St Helens on Merseyside. When he told his school's career advisor he wanted to be a farmer the man was quite taken aback.

"He looked at me with this blank look and said 'We've never had a farmer at this school before'," he recalls.

Even the local careers office were stumped at first and advised him to start ringing the farmers in the Yellow Pages to see if he could get a job.

But Jon had always wanted to work on a farm and as he started to study agriculture and get more experience he realised shepherding was his "forte".

Many happy years of lambing, shearing, feeding and breeding sheep, mending fences and walls and going to the mart followed, until 1998, when he was asked to write some walks by the landlady of a pub in Rothbury, where he lives.

The landlady had moved on by the time those walks were ready so Jon tried selling them on the internet instead. Shepherds Walks was born and six years later Jon gave up shepherding to concentrate on the business.

Shepherd's perspective
The 16-year-old Jon who left school with barely an O Level would never have imagined himself running his own business or indeed having his writing published one day.

But his intimate knowledge of the landscape, accumulated through so many years spent working in the countryside, has given him a unique selling point - his "shepherds perspective".

His friends were the first to appreciate it.

"Instead of saying 'That's a lovely landscape' I'd explain how the drystone walls were created, explain what hefted sheep were, and about the rigs and furrows in the field. I'd explain all the time and they were always fascinated.

"My philosophy is if you went round a coal mine you wouldn't get a shipbuilder to take you round you'd get someone who knew about it.

"So I'm not a literary genius but actually I'll explain to people about the landscape around."

Foot and mouth
Jon also shares his experiences of living in the farming community with walkers.

He gives an example: "I'll explain what it was like living in the countryside during foot and mouth.

"I'll tell them what it's like when your daughter can't go to school because they won't let her in unless she's not had contact with livestock for 48 hours, but you're a shepherd and you're working on a farm and you've got lambs in the kitchen because you're lambing.

"And actually explain what it was like - the smell of disinfectant through our house and the Saturday journey out to meet the supermarket van at the end our road to get our shopping..."

As Jon gets into the full meat of his story it's clear he's a natural raconteur and extremely passionate about educating people about the countryside and farming.

He's also dying to show off the beauty of Northumberland.

"I'm a total obsessive," he admits. "I get totally obsessed with anything I do."

His "walking craze" has been going some time now but it used to be motorbikes - he went to shepherd in the Isle of Man because he loved the TT races.

Jon still has a few sheep to "waste" his money on but his focus is obviously very much on the business - and he's loving the new life.

"I still use a lot of the principles I learned in farming. It was the best time of my life but now I can achieve a lot more because I'm in charge of my own destiny."