Peter Tavy

John talks about the annual cycle in the sheep, cattle and pony trade.
John Arthur Reap (b.1892; male, farmer)
C908/30/C5 © BBC

Transcript for Peter Tavy

John: With regards this farm in particular was a general stock farm. That mean to say that we carried cattle, we carried sheep and we carried ponies. That is going back into my early days. Well, after that, we still carried on with that: we used to rear all our own cattle; rear all our own sheep. The cattle which we kept was the South Devons

Stanley: Yes.

John: and the sheep was the native breed of Grey-faced Dartmoors. Eventually the sheep was very largely succeeded by the Scots Black-face. The first importation, which was made by my father, was in October nineteen-hundred-and-five and that consisted of forty shearling ewes and a ram sent down direct from Lanark1 by the auctioneers which are still there today, Lawrie and Symington2. And this stock, which we have today, in large part has bred up from that initial beginning.

Stanley: I see. Oh.

John: And we always had South Devon cattle. And of course in those days the cows was milked, the, the cows were milked and the milk was strained direct from the cows into the old-fashioned tin pan. That pan, that milk was allowed to set for at least twelve hours in the summer; twenty-four hours when the weather was cool enough. And then it was scalded

Stanley: Uhm.

John: on a tank of boiling water to produce clotted cream.

Stanley: I see. Oh and

John: Yeah.

Stanley: the boiling water was the right temperature, was it?

John: Oh yes, it would be boiled, you see. The, the milk, the, must never be allowed to come to the boil. And of course it was in a jacketed boiler, which was where the water continually surrounded the pan, but of course it never came in contact with anything else. Cause once you got the milk in the pan boiling, it would get to boiling heat, but it would never boil, because it was jacketed.

Stanley: Yeah.

John: Now if you once [laughs] if you once, uh, got the c, uh, the milk in the pan boiling, you spoilt your cream. It was, it would be all, it would get mixed in with the milk and you would never get it right any more.

Stanley: Hmm. Hmm.

John: And that produced the genuine clotted cream. The clotted cream which you get today is not the genuine article. It may be called clotted cream; it may be termed Devonshire cream, but it’s, the first, what happens is, is the milk is put through a separator.

Stanley: Hmm.

John: Well, the result is, you’ve got the cream into a s, more-or-less semi-solid mass. That is scalded in more-or-less the same way as the old, original clotted cream, but it’s an entirely a different article. Well when this clotted cream was, well, after it’d been put, set aside — and it would have to stop for at least twelve or fifteen hours — then the mi, then the cream would be skimmed off the top with a skimmer or by the naked hand; whichever the producer, produce, was accustomed to using. In turn that skimmed milk was used to rear the cows.

Stanley: Oh yes.

John: That was the system as far as the cattle went on.

Stanley: Uhm.

John: And of course, from the female stock of the cattle we produced all our replacements of the herd; it was entirely self-contained. And, uhm, or, and in the case, of course, the, the, the male cows was castrated and they would be carried on to become sold as stores at around about two-and-a-half to three years of old, of age. Or else, or al they, alternatively, they would be carried on and fattened when they would be somewhere about three years old off the pastures.

Stanley: Did they say ‘castrated’ in the old Devon way?

John: Well they commonly call them ‘cut’.

Stanley: Yeah.

John: I think I’m right there.

Stanley: Aye.

John: Probably you’ve got that before, haven’t you?

Stanley: Well, I’ve heard [inaudible]3.

John: They wouldn’t term it ‘castrated’, they’d be ‘cut’.

Stanley: Oh.

John: So.

Stanley: Who would do that?

John: Well, sometimes it was the professional castrators that was, that toured the country on the job, you see, two or three times in the season. Or in many instances the, the farmer did it himself.

Stanley: Did you do your own?

John: Oh yes. Well I, I did, I didn’t, not in my father’s day, but when I got on my own, uh, when I got old enough I did all the castrating myself. And of course with regard the sheep; the position was a large number of the ewes and the hoggets very often were sent away for the winter and the system was that you might be able to pick a few lambs — wether lambs — that would meet somebody’s requirements about the beginning of July. But for the general part they were sold as stores in September and October.

Stanley: Uhm.

John: Alternatively a number of them would be carried on on the farms to wethers: a trade of course, which has entirely died.

Stanley: Uhm.

John: And in that case the wethers would be sold when they was two-teeths — a year, you see, it’ll be, uh, about a year and three months old — they’d be sold generally in July and August. And a very large number would go into the, the pa, the rich pastures of Somerset.

Stanley: Uhm.

John: That was a very regular trade.

Stanley: Yes.

John: And the draft ewes would be sold to go onto other farms for crossing, for the production of fat lambs with, uh, a Devon ram or in many instances, perhaps, they would be crossed in those days with a South Devon, when the demand was for a bigger type of, of hog, of, of lamb than there is today.

Stanley: Uhm.

John: And of course the, the great thing with a Dartmoor sheep was it was a great producer of wool. And a great deal of that wool used to go to John Shaw and Sons4 of North Tawton5 and Halifax6. It was processed up to a point at Halifax, at North Tawton, and then the wool was transferred to theirs to Halifax for finishing.

Stanley: Uhm.

John: So that was the, that was the hist, the history of the sheep in brief. And of course with regard the ponies in my early days there was not very much trade for the pits, but the, the Dartmoor pony always enjoyed a very good reputation as a dual-purpose pony. There was j, uh, buyers used to come from the East of England, the Midlands and Kent every backend and used to buy what ponies that was on offer. That was before there was any auctions.

Stanley: Hmm.

John: Some would be buying all type of ponies; any age. Some would be buying a f, looking for a few horse-ponies if they could find them for the pits. But the pit trade at that time was not very extensive, because, part, there was severe competition and the Dartmoor pony in that respect met severe competition for the Icelandic ponies.

Stanley: Hmm.

John: And of course the Icelandic pony was more suitable for the pits than the Dartmoor, cause he was a pony of heavier build.

Stanley: Yes.

John: And a large number of the Dartmoor mares used to get disseminated, dis, distributed all over the country for crossing with the thoroughbreds for the production of the riding pony. And there’s no doubt whatever that the Dart, if you can get the genuine Dartmoor mare, she’s the finest found, the finest foundation pony in the world; without a doubt. You can breed anything from her: you can breed a riding horse; you can breed a, a harness horse, if you’ve got the right type of sire; or you can breed a carthorse.

Stanley: Hmm.

John: I’ve had a lifetime experience with ponies. I’ve tried many types and many breeds, but I’ve never found anything to come up as a foundation mare to the pure-bred Dartmoor.


  1. Lanark is a town in south-east Scotland.
  2. Lawrie and Symington refers to a well-known Livestock Auctioneers first established in Lanark in 1867.
  3. [inaudible] indicates a passage or phrase where the speaker’s exact words are unclear.
  4. John Shaw and Sons refers to a Halifax-based woollen mill with a branch factory in North Tawton.
  5. North Tawton is a village on Dartmoor to the north-east of Peter Tavy.
  6. Halifax is a town in West Yorkshire.

Commentary for Peter Tavy

English has a wealth of vocabulary relating to livestock and many commentators have noted that our words for the animals themselves tend to be of Germanic origin, while the terminology for the meat they produce has a French root. Consider the following, for instance:

  • cow – modern German Kuh (cf. beef – modern French bœuf)
  • calf – modern German Kalb (cf. veal – modern French veau)
  • swine – modern German Schwein (cf. pork – modern French porc, although swine has been superseded in modern English by pig, a word of unknown origin)
  • sheep – modern German Schaf (cf. mutton – modern French mouton)

A variety of terms

In addition we have numerous words that differentiate between the male and female animal or between young and old. This area of vocabulary varies greatly across the country and John uses a number of terms that are common in Devon, although probably only known by members of the farming community. The following are examples he uses relating to sheep:

  • store/fat lamb – sheep acquired or kept for fattening
  • hogget – female sheep between its first and second shearing
  • wether – castrated male sheep
  • two-teeth – sheep between its first and second shearing
  • draft ewe – female sheep removed from flock for sale at market

The Survey of English Dialects recorded a number of words across the country referring to sheep of different sex or at different stages of development. The most common word in the north, for instance, for a male sheep was tup compared with the southern alternative ram. Wether — a word of Scandinavian origin also found in the Yorkshire place-name Wetherby — was also widely recorded, generally referring to a castrated male sheep. Other recorded terms included sheeder — possibly a contraction of she and deer; teg — possibly related to modern Swedish tacka, meaning ‘ewe’, gimmer — related to modern Icelandic gymber meaning ‘yearling ewe’ and shearling, hog and theave, each with very specific local meanings.

Diverse sources

This enormous variety of terms demonstrates how English vocabulary has expanded by absorbing words from various languages and applying them in particular circumstances. Not only do we have a set of ‘standard’ terms — sheep, ram, ewe and lamb from our Anglo-Saxon forefathers — but mutton was brought to us as a result of the Norman Conquest, while wether, gimmer and teg pay tribute to our Viking ancestry and hog, like dog and pig, is of such obscure origin it might even date back to our distant Celtic past.