`If you have to call reconstructing sheep shelters art, well, that's al l right by me'

The sculptor Andy Goldsworthy is turning part of Cumbria into a sculpture park.
The sculptor Andy Goldsworthy is celebrating the Millennium by reconstructing a hundred stone sheep shelters in Cumbria. He is best known for the transience of his work (arches of ice carved at the North Pole; a curtain made from hand-joined twigs and leaves of sycamore) but this project, he hopes, will last at least another millenium "Ephemeral work is my core nourishment," he agrees, "But it's about the past. A moment that's gone. Sheepfolds is about the future; it's something launching us into what's to come."

Indeed, the recent past of the Cumbrian sheepfold is a pitiful one. Once an essential part of hill-farming, these small walled constructions appeared on fells and local villages in their hundreds. There were three distinct varieties: sheepfolds were for keeping the sheep together; washfolds were for annual washing prior to clipping; and pinfields, built in villages, were holding-pens for stray or stolen sheep.

Yet modern sheep-farming, all wire fences and chemical baths, meant farmers stopped the labour-intensive practice of going on to the fell to tend their sheep. So the little stone folds, used for thousands of years to wash, shelter and number their woolly inhabitants, have been abandoned and left to decay.

Goldsworthy's project hopes to redress this. An initiative by Cumbria County Council, Northern Arts and the Lottery, Sheepfolds is a pounds 620,000- project to bring back some of the folds to the hills, albeit for aesthetic rather than agrarian reasons. "I'm working where the existing folds used to be," says Goldsworthy, who is rebuilding all three separate types with the expert help of local dry-stone wallers. "I'm rebuilding folds which lay on the fell, or by drove-paths, by rivers, and in the centres of villages. I'm repairing folds with the stones left lying around, or where I have to start from scratch, I'm bringing in local stone." In each he is placing an abstract piece of sculpture: a monumental stone, perhaps, or a cone made from carefully placed layers of stones. "Each fold will contain a work which will be discovered by people when they look inside. Many people won't even know it's there. I could have easily put in something which poked out and dominated everything, but I wanted it to be subtle, and quiet."

Indeed, the entire procedure, whilst not exactly stealthy, has been organised in an extremely low-key manner. "We sought a general blessing and it was on that basis that we proceeded," says Cumbria's public art consultant Steve Chettle. The hill farmers who and own the land were individually canvassed. "On the fields, in their kitchens, in their barns. We went and found them all. In the rain, in the snow. Public art in any landscape, not least the landscape of Cumbria, is a sensitive issue," says Chettle, understandably wary of wrecking the spectacular landscape of the Lakes. "We had to take in the particular qualities of Cumbria."

The idea seems to have worked. "I'm not against old walls put back up again, by any manner of means," says hill farmer Bob Cuddy, whose thousand Herdwicks are just about to start lambing in Borrowdale Valley. "If you have to call it Art: well, that's all right by me. I'm all in favour of old folds and washes. It's a grand thing. The artist, well, he's doing his thing and he's giving our local lads a bit of work. It's better than other arty stuff that's here," continues Cuddy, shuddering at the memory. "We've a Thing, and I'll call it a Thing, imported into our dale from God knows where - the centenary of the National Trust. It's as much in keeping with the Lake District as a low-flying jet."

Not everyone is so positive. "He's had a lot of publicity," says Bampton hill farmer Peter Allen. "But I just wish it drew attention to the difficulties of working on the land as well as to his art. And why can't he just do one, not a hundred? Have you got 100 Rodin sculptures in the country?"

Well no, but some think the number and presence of Sheepfolds will draw attention to the problems and peculiarities of Lakeland hill farming. "Rural landscape is geriatric," says Andrew Humphries of Newton Rigg in Mungrisedale, site for the first two finished Goldsworthy folds. "We just patch it up and repair it. This gives us a chance to make new marks in the landscape, which both echo what went before, and give it a newly sustainable element."

According to Humphries, the project will usher in eco-friendly tourism to the tourist-blighted Lake District. All the folds are being built on, or near public rights of way and the public will be encouraged to visit them via a series of postcards helpfully marked with Ordnance Survey Grid reference numbers.

"People who visit the Lake District will now have a chance to explore and understand what they have come to see. The culture and people of the hill farmers," says Humphries. "It's difficult to see it in a vacuum, but if they can see something like the restored folds, it'll seem to matter. The Cumbrian sheepfolds are the only surviving examples of community farming in England. They were built on common land. If people get excited about the flora and fauna of Cumbria, they'll look after the orchids here; but these folds and washes are our last vestiges of common land use. They've survived for over a thousand years and until now, no one's looked after them. This will help people value them."

Indeed, there's even a suggestion that with Goldsworthy's sheepfolds, tourists might learn to empathise not only with the farmers but with the sheep themselves. Dry-stone waller Joe Smith is working with Goldsworthy on the project. "To me, a wall, or a fold, is a functional thing. But one day we were in one of Andy's Mungrisdale folds, tidying up a few things. We sat down to have our sandwiches," says Smith. "And do you know, some Swaledale sheep came in. They weren't sent in, or herded in. They just came in. Just like that. They were interested. They wandered in, and wandered out again. And do you know," continues Smith, "I can envisage people doing the same thing. Wandering in, scratching their heads and wandering out again. Brilliant."

More information about Sheepfolds is available from Steve Chettle, Cumbria Public Art, The Old Stables, Redhills, Penrith, Cumbria CA11 ODT.