I live in Brighton, on the south coast of the United Kingdom. It’s a vibrant city bordered by the ocean on the south side and by the South Downs, with its many beautiful hills, woodlands, and parks, almost encircling the rest of the city. The South Downs was recently given the status of national park because of its natural beauty. This beauty is in large part due to centuries of sheep-grazing on the chalk hillsides.
For several years, I volunteered with a conservation group and we went out every Tuesday, cutting down overgrown bushes, coppicing woodland trees, building stiles and steps, clearing rubbish from the beach—whatever we’d been asked to do on that day. I thoroughly enjoyed working mindfully with nature.
One day we were working on a steep, hilly site when I overheard the park ranger saying he was intending to bring sheep into the park to keep the undergrowth in check and would need volunteers to help keep an eye on them. As a keen knitter, I saw this as a wonderfully circular thing to do: help with the initial clearing of the site, look after the sheep, and, with any luck, obtain some fleece to knit myself a warm sweater.
My dream came true! I attended a training day, and for three years now, I’ve been going twice a week, early in the morning, to watch the sheep. I have to check the electric fence, look out for any signs of sickness in the flock, and make sure they have sufficient water. When I’m finished, I sit on a bench or on the battery box and meditate for a while, listening to the birdsong and feeling the wind and morning sun on my face. I have had some of the best meditation experiences in this way, feeling completely at one with nature, totally ego-free! On one of the sites there is a dewpond which freezes in winter and then, in spring, I can watch swallows and swifts dipping low over the water, ruffling the clouds’ reflections.
The chalk grassland of the South Downs is quite rare. In the past, many species of butterfly came to visit the flowers that grow there. The conservation initiative is now recreating that habitat. The sheep crop the grass, but they are taken off in late spring to allow the flowers to bloom. We’re seeing more and more butterflies visiting these sites. The sheep are particularly hardy breeds that are used solely to preserve the habitat, not for meat production. It’s wonderful to be a part of such an organic project. And I have a beautiful dark brown sweater which I knitted from a Herdwick sheep fleece to keep me warm on those hills.
Vivien Eliades, True Valuable Flower, lives in Brighton and sometimes in a small village in Cyprus, with her husband Barry. They practise with Pebbles Sangha and have five grown-up children and three grandsons. Vivien took the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings at Nottingham in 2012. Apart from sheep ‘lookering,’ she’s a massage therapist and amateur photographer.