Author David Joy reflects on the life of one of his ancestors, the last shepherd of Grassington Moor, Thomas Joy, who died 40 years ago.

NO one knew the vast expanse of Grassington Moor better than its last full-time shepherd.

Thomas Joy was born in 1917 at Ram’s Close – a remote spot overlooking Grimwith Reservoir where his family had been farming for at least 200 years.

School involved a two and a half mile walk to Hebden. When he was 13 years old, his father decided to move to Gill House on the edge of Grassington Moor.

Although even more isolated, it was in a sheltered valley protected from the north by the massive bulk of Great Whernside.Thomas was only too glad to leave school.

Life now centred on Gill House and the surrounding moor. A stranger would have been troubled by the sound of silence with only bleating sheep and occasional hoots of an owl at night.

There was no electricity and oil lamps had to be lit to shed a glimmer on total darkness. Winters could be grim with snow half-burying the house for weeks on end, although fortunately it was at least possible to keep warm. There were ancient rights to cut peat on the moor.

For food, bread was baked in the fireside oven and pig-killings provided succulent pork. Rabbits were staple fare and Thomas would be out on the moor setting nets at dusk.

Next day he would be up “long before others had even wiped the sleep out of their eyes”. Hundreds could be caught with the help of his dogs.

Living on the moor edge, Thomas came to know every inch of its 1,845 acres. He could go straight to the best beds of rushes, regularly scythed as bedding for livestock, and was fully aware of the finest springs for an ice-cold drink. He also respected the dangers of bilious green bogs of sphagnum moss, so easily a death trap for the unwary.

It all stood in good stead when Thomas at the age of 29 left the utter remoteness of Gill House where scarcely another soul was ever seen. He moved to a cottage in Grassington, but soon afterwards spotted an advert in the Craven Herald.

Members of the local Sheep-Keepers’ Association were worried about over-grazing of the moor and needed a full-time shepherd. Thomas knew that three others were interested and had doubts about his chances, but decided to put in a tender. He got the job.

It was now a two-mile walk to the nearest part of the moor and double that distance to its outer extremities. Around a thousand sheep had to be carefully watched in all weathers. There was the constant problem of ‘strays’, especially where grass was greener on the other side of the drystone boundary wall.

For this reason, sheep would always jump off the moor and never onto it. Thomas achieved a deserved reputation as skilled waller, always using ‘rack of eye’ rather than line or a spirit level. He was also an expert mole-catcher, fully aware of the damage they could do to pasture land with their mounds seriously reducing the amount of available grazing.

An annual date in the calendar was the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ of August when shooting on the moor reached its height. Heather would be at its finest and red grouse would burst forth from the undergrowth with much loud crowing.

Sportsmen paused for a lunch break at one of the shooting huts and Thomas would often head off to beds that he knew were best for cloudberries. Confined to the highest ground, they ripened from red to orange and he would use them in pies. If pressed, he would admit that they were also known as knoutberries as they tasted of ‘nowt’.

Summer saw much of the moor white with cotton grass and a great ‘gathering’ took place for the spectacle of sheep-washing in Blea Beck.

It was good for the lambs and made wool on the older sheep ready for shearing, which normally took place within ten days. It was all part of a ritual that never varied from year to year.

Thomas Joy was 75 when he died in 1982 but is still remembered with respect by those who were then young farmers heavily dependent on his shepherding skills.

They have since seen their world change out of recognition, taking with it a race of blunt and independent dalesmen. Full of dry humour, heroic in mould and poetic in speech, they were hard working but deeply content.

Grassington Moor is also very different. Wildlife is in decline and the once wonderful springtime sound of the curlew is becoming a rarity. Peat-cutting is a casualty of the climate crisis and the carbon footprint. Shooting is big business and broad tracks run in all directions. The number of farmers grazing the moor has steadily declined.

Thomas Joy was not replaced as a full-time shepherd and his former home at Gill House was demolished n 1993. He would have found much of the change inconceivable, just as he would never have anticipated an age when a shepherdess can become a television celebrity. Yet surely he would have welcomed two developments destined to make farm life easier beyond belief. What would he have made of a quad bike and a mobile phone?

David Joy is the author of A Passion for the Dales, published by Great Northern Books.