‘Swaledale sheep are one of the worst addictions known to man,’ says Tom Hutchinson, holding a handsome tup (ram) that hasn’t quite made the cut. Without frustration, he thumbs each feature that isn’t perfect on the dark-faced, shaggy creature.
Calling the Hutchinsons addicts is no exaggeration, after this opening scene, 85 minutes of quiet documentary reveal the hardships of farming that demand their total commitment. Nominated for the Environmental Film award at the Sheffield Documentary Festival this summer, Magali Pettier’s Addicted to Sheep is a poignant homage to farming in the hills, its triumphs and its tribulations.
The film has been shot in the Pennines, on a tenanted sheep farm in Upper Teesdale, County Durham. Through informal interviews with Tom and Kay Hutchinson and their children Jack, Esme and Hetty, the documentary shows farming passing through the generations. Just as Tom inherited the feel for farming from his grandfather, his children are uncomplaining and understanding of the hard work involved. In fact, some of the most touching scenes show the three navigating the heavy doors, chilly barns and the vast fields of their homestead as they tend to livestock. This is an adult world that few ‘towny’ children would now be familiar with.
This isn’t the kind of farming we are used to seeing. The Hutchinson’s work on a small scale to make enough money to pay rent and feed the family. There’s no pension scheme and little security. ‘We’re not trying to compete with the industrial fast finishers because we know we couldn’t,’ admits Tom. ‘We have small numbers and try to add value to everything that we sell.’ This makes Addicted to Sheep different from the farming documentaries we’ve seen before. Unlike advocacy documentaries like Food Inc. and GMO OMG, Addicted to Sheep is not about food, it’s about life – from the man who scans the bellies of 2,000 pregnant yows (ewes) per day, to the unexpected stillborns of the following season.
‘It’s a battle to succeed as any kind of farmer when you’re farming livestock,’ says Tom. ‘You get this horrible thing called deadstock, when things die for no apparent reason.’ With an unreadable expression he adds, ‘Most sheep farmers will tell you that the main ambition of a sheep, virtually from day one, is for it to die as soon as possible.’
The film is visually arresting. The outdoors is used to show the passage of time, crusty snow makes a moonscape of the surrounding hills while greener pastures show the arrival of spring. Throughout, long shadows and slanted light suggest some undoubtedly early mornings and what results is a thoughtful panorama of life on a farm on England’s hillsides.