Addicted to Sheep tells the story of the Hutchinson family, sheep farmers in the North Pennines who are trying to breed the ultimate Swaledale sheep. The film opens with a shot of farmer Tom assessing a less-than-perfect example – the wool is too frizzy, the horns too widely spaced, the black and white patterning is all wrong. You can practically see the insecurity in the poor thing’s eyes as Tom reels off its many failings.
This is the central conceit of the film, the challenge to breed perfection, the Platonic ideal of sheep-kind, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. Shot over the course of four years, the film is a portrait, a snapshot, of a way of life that’s dying out, of centuries-old traditions struggling to survive in the modern world. Beginning in January, we are introduced to the stunning North Pennine landscape in all its snow-capped glory, before witnessing the changing of the seasons, from lambing in the spring, to releasing the sheep to the uplands in the summer and autumn.
The sheer hard-work and brutal realities of life on the farm are not shied away from. Sheep die for no apparent reason, lambs are stillborn, and Tom and his wife Kay are open about the enormous financial struggles they face. They have no idea about how they could ever pay for retirement, or what will happen if their lease is not renewed – as tenant farmers, they don’t own their own land.
Tom and Kay’s three children, and all the other farmers’ children at the local primary school, offer an interesting perspective. They’re universally enamoured of the farming way of life, and one can’t help but speculate how their enthusiasm will stand up in the future as they face up to the bitter realities of the lifestyle. Tom laments the greed and profit-driven approach of most of the landlords in the area, acknowledging that without the fairness and inclination to encourage hill farmers shown by their own landlord, their farm would be unsustainable.
There’s no narration in the film, and no historical or societal context provided, which lends the film an atmosphere of distance and isolation that is heightened by the long, lingering shots of the silent landscape. The annual sheep-judging competition at the end of the film shows the warmth and closeness of the community, but the overall impression of the film is of a lifestyle of enormous dedication and sacrifice, for scant reward – at least financially.
Addicted to Sheep is a beautiful, rewarding film that offers us a glimpse of an ancient and enthralling way of life.