Thursday, October 8, 2009

'Scribblings from the Surf' - Devon Life 10/09: The Shepherd and The Falconer

The fourth in a series entitled 'Scribblings from the Surf'. For more information on Devon Life, click here. To read the article, see the text below or click to enlarge the pictures of the original article below that. To see the whole series, click here.


Barrister and writer Tim Kevan meets a shepherd and a falconer.

There are few things that personify the English countryside more than the sight of a shepherd and his dogs herding sheep or that of a peregrine falcon swooping down for a feed and for over ten years that is exactly what David Kennard and Jonathan Marshall have been delighting people with in their joint exhibitions at David’s Borough Farm just above Woolacombe in North Devon. Yet despite their firm grounding in the region, they have both taken on a national profile in the last few years.

The shepherd: David Kennard (
What both David and Jonathan have in common is that neither of them were born into the job and for that reason both have had to make that extra effort to break into a world that is often seen as closed to newcomers. David is originally from Kent but he used to holiday as a child on the next door farm to where he is now based and would spend many magical hours helping out with the work. Then, as soon as he hit seventeen and passed his driving test he flew the nest and started work on a Youth Training Scheme at a farm in East Kent. It was there not only that he eventually became a shepherd but also that he met his wife Debbie.
After a few years he was drawn back to the South West where he took over Borough Farm as well as the National Trust land covering the stunning Morte Point. Then, eleven years ago he realised that he needed to diversify in order to survive financially. This started with sheep dog displays and was followed by a film about life on his farm entitled ‘The Year of the Working Sheepdog’. It caught the popular imagination and was followed by his book ‘A Shepherd’s Watch’ which was also a success. It is a beautiful and evocative book which is written with the same wry humour that you can hear when watching his show and has lines such as: “I can’t say that all sheep are stupid, I haven’t met them all. But the ones I have encountered tend to be on the lower side of dim.” But above all the book brings to life not only this ancient and noble profession but David’s passion for the countryside, nature and all its living things.
Since then he has truly gone global with not only another book, ‘The Dogs of Windcutter Down: One Shepherd's Struggle for Survival’ but also the launch of a new film on Channel 5 ‘Mist the tale of a sheepdog puppy’ and the two follow-up series which have since followed on both TV and DVD. In this again it is David’s gentle humour and sense of mischief which carries us along as we watch Mist develop into a fully-fledged working dog. People might think of James Herriot or Johnny Morris’s ‘Animal Magic’ but the truth is that David Kennard has a voice which is as unique as the breathtaking scenery on which he works. It is a voice of a modest country man which lifts the heart and, without even trying, reminds us how precious our rural heritage is to all of our lives. Yet it also reminds us how fragile is its continuation as the job becomes less and less financially viable. As he says in ‘A Shepherd’s Watch’: “It’s a sobering, saddening thought, but I do sometimes wonder whether I represent one of the last generations of shepherds.” We can only hope that this does not turn out to be true.

The falconer: Jonathan Marshall (
Thoughts of keeping traditional country skills alive are even more on your mind when you watch Jonathan Marshall taking his Harris Hawks hunting rabbits on a country estate or see the way he handles his peregrine falcons at a display. This is another person who through sheer force of personality and love for what he does has not only managed to carve a career out of his passion but has also become extremely well-known for it throughout the world.
Like David he also became hooked as a child after having been fortunate enough to see a golden eagle in the Grisedale Forest when he was eight years old. After that he got a kestrel for his birthday and when he left school he went to work with Bob Haddon and his birds of prey at Windsor Safari Park. From there he joined the RAF and afterwards the Hawk Conservancy before setting up the falconry centre in North Devon’s Milky Way Adventure Theme Park in 1991. Having learnt his trade from all of the various angles he eventually set up by himself in 2001 and now has over 40 adult birds.
When you meet him you can see that he lives and breathes birds of prey. But it is also clear that they fire his imagination and specifically that part which dreams of daring deeds and great adventure. This has led him to produce some of the most spectacular displays of falconry in the world including hang-gliding and flying a micro-light plane with his golden eagle Sampson, sky-diving with his peregrine falcon Nico and hunting on horseback with peregrines and Harris Hawks.
But what comes across most is his desire to share his passion with other people. To fire their imagination with that same love for wildlife and to bring them a little closer to what is in reality living history, a whisper on the wind of time from the Middle Ages and beyond. Like David, he is charismatic, interesting and genuinely funny both in his big displays and also on the private days out which he offers and it is no surprise that he regularly appears on television programmes such as The One Show. But also like David you get the impression that after all the hullabaloo has died down he is extremely happy to retreat to the peace and quiet of the countryside and away from the noise of the modern world.

Tim Kevan is the author of the comic novel ‘BabyBarista and the Art of War’ (Bloomsbury) and the co-author of ‘Why Lawyers Should Surf’ (with Dr Michelle Tempest).

Photographs provided courtesy of

No comments: