Britain's littlest shepherd, aged two, a lamb called Twinkle - and a bond between boy and sheep that will melt your heart
- Arthur Jones, two, looks after his own six-strong herd on Dorset farm
- Arthur, who has cerebral palsy, walks thanks to his sheep Twinkle
- He is Britain's youngest shepherd and has won several prizes
Boxing Day morning is traditionally a time for long sleeps and leisurely breakfasts. But while most of Britain takes it easy after yesterday's festivities, little Arthur Jones will be out in the Dorset countryside mending fences.
Many winter mornings have seen him out in the fields, hammering tacks into a post, wearing his favourite tweed cap.
He also feeds the sheep, rattling a tiny pail containing a handful of pellets. 'Come on Twinkle!' he calls to a ewe with a dense white fleece and a calm demeanour, who dutifully trots across to him.
Cuteness overload: Arthur Jones, two-and-a-half, with his lamb Twinkle and his miniature crook
So far, so ordinary for a hard-working farmhand. But Arthur is just two years old. As Britain's youngest shepherd, he has been herding and caring for his own little flock of six pedigree sheep for almost a year now, under the tutelage of his grandma Nicky Jesse, one of the country's few shepherdesses. She'll be out there with him today, taking the lead as they mend the fences.
Arthur is a bit of a celebrity in shepherding circles. He is the youngest ever member of the Poll Dorset and Dorset Horn Sheep Breeders' Association, has won three prizes in county shows and has even been introduced to the Countess of Wessex.
His mum Sarah — Nicky's daughter — has many reasons to be proud of him; not least because he was born two-and-a-half months prematurely and has cerebral palsy.
His lower body has been affected by the condition: doctors warned that he would not walk until he was four.
But Arthur had other plans: this September he took his first steps unaided, and Nicky is certain his exceptional progress can be attributed to the extraordinary bond between him and Twinkle.
Little shepherd: The tiny farmboy feeds on of the lambs at his grandmother's
Winning: Arthur Jones with his grandmother Nicky Jesse (and Twinkle) being awarded highly commended at the New Forest Show
Farm life: Arthur (pictured here with Twinkle) got his first taste of farm life at six-months-old when mum Sarah went back to her job as the village postman and he went to stay at his grandmother's farm
Like Arthur, Twinkle was born prematurely. And just like Arthur, who weighed only 3lb 4oz at birth and spent seven weeks in intensive care, Twinkle was fragile and underweight when she was born in April.
The little boy and the sheep developed a special empathy: it seems Twinkle, who was hand-reared by Arthur from a bottle, understands his needs. If Arthur stumbles and falls, Twinkle knows he is not able to get up unaided, so she walks over to him, stands still beside him and lets him scramble to his feet using her as support.
'Twinkle had a fight for life as well as Arthur,' explains Nicky, 55. 'She was very poorly when she was born and her mum rejected her. So I started to bottle-feed her, and when Arthur saw what I was doing, he said: "Can I feed Twinkle, too?"
'So he bottle-fed Twinkle for four months and she grew up to be his pet. He fed her every two hours and a special rapport developed between them,' she smiles at Arthur, who is following the story intently. 'You love Twinkle, don't you?' she asks, and he beams and nods vigorously.
'We put a little lead collar on her and straight away she walked with Arthur, quietly at his side. He took his first steps alongside her. She was so docile. She seemed to know that she had to be gentle with him.
'And it gave Arthur confidence to know Twinkle was there beside him; that he could hold on to her if he needed support. His physiotherapist said he would need a walking frame, but now she has seen his progress she's decided he doesn't. Actually, she says it would hold him back.'
Sarah and Nicky look at the little boy — robust, happy and good-natured — and are constantly amazed by his progress.
Sarah, 32, recalls: 'I'd lost my first baby, a daughter, Emma Louise — who was born prematurely at 25 weeks — when she was only two days old. And when Arthur arrived early too, weighing the same as a bag and a half of sugar, we feared we'd lose him as well.
'He lived in an incubator for seven weeks; he had to be fed through a tube. I stayed with him, day and night, at the hospital for four weeks; I wanted to do everything for him just in case . . .' Her voice trails off.
Youngest shepherd: Arthur Jones tends to the sheep on a mini quad bike at his grandmother's farm
'Natural': Arthur is the fifth generation in his family to be a shepherd and he has already picked up prizes for it
Herd: Arthur has six sheep of his own including his favourite animal, Twinkle
But little Arthur prospered; he had a fighting spirit. And when he was six months old Sarah — who is married to warehouseman Dean, 40 — resumed her job as village postwoman at Sixpenny Handley, Dorset, and Nicky offered to take care of Arthur while his mum was at work.
Arthur spends every weekday from 7.30am to 5.30pm with his grandma, although he has just started nursery two mornings a week, and goes with her as she tends not only her own 80 pedigree sheep, but also eight other flocks as a contract shepherdess.
And he revels in the lifestyle. 'Right from the start he wanted to mimic everything I did,' says Nicky. 'So we found a mini toy version for him of all the things I had.'
In the sheep barn at her Dorset farm are her grandson's little red plastic wheelbarrow; a tiny pedal-powered JCB digger; miniature shovels and brushes; a sit-on tractor; and his latest, and favourite, acquisition: a battery-operated quad bike.
Nicky explains, 'When I was doing my rounds checking the sheep I used to carry Arthur, but he was getting heavier and heavier. So last year, when he was about to turn two, we all clubbed together and bought him the quad bike.
'It has a little foot throttle and it goes no faster than walking pace. Now he can go wherever I need to go. It's brilliant,' she says.
Arthur, Nicky is convinced, has the makings of a fine shepherd: he follows in an illustrious line and is the fifth generation of the family to keep sheep.
Nicky set up her own Poll Dorset and Dorset Horn flock 22 years ago: this year they have won 17 trophies at county shows. And in September Arthur — by then enrolled as the youngest shepherd in the breed society — showed his own sheep in the child-handling class at Dorset County Show.
'He wanted to walk into the ring on his own with his sheep,' Nicky remembers. 'He wore a little white coat — a miniature version of mine — and his tweed cap. Lots of other members of the association were there. We all had tears in our eyes because he won the cup for the child who showed the most endeavour.'
Progress: Arthur suffers from cerebral palsy after he was born prematurely and herding sheep has helped him
Learning the ropes: Arthur tends to 80 animals every day on a farm run by his grandmother Nicky
Prizes: Arthur with his grandmother Nicky and sheep Twinkle holding the cup he won at Dorset County Show
Quad bike: He's not even old enough to go to school but Arthur is a keen shepherd and uses his quad bike
Favourite: Arthur's favourite sheep is Twinkle who, like him, was born prematurely and he bottle fed her
Arthur produces the award. 'My cupee!' he beams, holding aloft a huge silver trophy with his name inscribed on it.
Arthur is an endearing little boy: cheerful and chatty, with winning blue eyes. When he was grooming his sheep at the New Forest Show in Hampshire this summer he caught the attention of Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, who was at the event with Prince Edward.
She knelt down in the straw and had her photo taken with Arthur. He produces a photograph: Arthur, the country's cutest shepherd with the Queen's daughter-in-law.
And when one of Arthur's ewes conveniently gave birth to twins on the eve of his nursery school nativity play last week, Nicky took the lambs along so Arthur — who was, of course, cast as a shepherd — had two real sheep to add authenticity to the role.
'Arthur was so excited,' recalls Sarah. 'He wore a shepherd's outfit my mum made, and held his tiny hazel wood crook with a horn handle that was specially made for him. He refused to take off his tweed cap and wear a headdress.
'He sat on the edge of the stage cuddling his lambs while all the children sang Away In A Manger.
'Mum and I had a lump in our throats. He's our little star.'
There is nothing false or forced about Arthur's love for his animals: he clearly cannot wait to be with them. 'He just seems to have an instinct for what to do with sheep,' says Nicky, and when we walk out to check the flock and feed them, Arthur takes the lead.
'Come on girls!' he calls. Then he says: 'We have to brush up, Nana,' and finds his little broom and sweeping stray bedding straw into a pile, which he hefts into the bucket of his toy digger.
Nicky pulls him along on it. 'He can't power the pedals himself yet, but he puts his feet on them, and as they turn it helps develop his co-ordination,' she explains.
Arthur checks the drinking troughs, skimming off straw from their surface. 'We thought, "If he's going to be a shepherd, we have to teach him the right way from the start",' Nicky says.
Lambs: Arthur and his grandmother Nicky look after one of the Poll Dorset lambs that is part of his flock
Skills: Arthur has even won three coveted prizes in country shows for his shepherding skills
In his blood: Grandmother Nicky says Arthur loves feeding and tending to the sheep at the farm in Dorset
All the while, faithful Twinkle, a sweet-tempered, picture-book sheep, is at his side. She has a bell round her neck and Arthur explains why: 'Cos she used to escape and come looking for me!'
Arthur is in his element and his flock — Twinkle, Treacle, Teasel, Lucy, Sooty and Sweep — is prospering. Already they are increasing in number: aside from the twin Christmas lambs that attended his Nativity play, another of his ewes has just produced a second set.
'He obviously has a good eye for picking sheep,' smiles Nicky. 'We let him chose the ones he wanted for his flock, and already two of his ewes have produced twins.'
Arthur, who turns three in January, was there at the births. 'He sat quietly on the straw and just waited,' she remembers. 'When they were born he was entranced. Then he chuckled when they wriggled to get up, and wanted to cuddle them.'
Arthur's ewe lambs will go on to breed themselves. And so his flock will grow and prosper.
'He's never happier than when he's with his sheep,' says Sarah. 'Shepherding is in his blood. Even at six months he was sitting in his pushchair and bottle-feeding the lambs.
'His first word was "baa". When he took his first steps it was with Twinkle.
'When Mum rang me I said, "No, I don't believe it!" His physiotherapist doesn't give him many exercises to do because he's making so much progress on his own. He's so determined. Sometimes I find it hard to believe how far he's come.
'He was such a sick baby, and now he is a strong, happy, healthy little boy. I was so worried that he wouldn't survive those first weeks of his life, I couldn't sleep. I just wanted to watch over him.
'So the greatest happiness for me, now, is that he's here and thriving. Everything he does makes me proud. We don't namby-pamby him. He jumps in puddles. He loves the mud and rain. He's progressed so well because of his active lifestyle.
'But actually we're convinced most of it's down to one special sheep called Twinkle.'