Any visitor to The Lakes are sure to spot the vast abundance of white wooly four legged locals. They are as much part of this area as the fells and lakes themselves. Given the weather and the altitude of the National Park sheep farming in The Lake District is far from easy. Fortunately however the livestock are on-board with what it needed from them…
The Friendly Faced Herdwick Sheep
The native sheep breed is the Herdwick. These plucky, friendly faced sheep are a real wonder of this area as they are able to comfortably exist high up on the fells were few other breeds could survive.
Herdwicks are thought to have been introduced to the Lake District by Norse settlers. Since their arrival they have clearly taken to the fells and made them their own. And what makes them really quite remarkable is that the Herdwicks’ mysterious ability of ‘heafing’. This innate ability provides them with a remarkable sense of direction that helps them keep to their familiar ground and return to it even after they have been moved far away. This instinct stretches through the generations, meaning that Herdwicks graze on, and become heafed to, the same patches of grounds as their ancestors.
The smiling white faces of Herdwicks make them instantly recognisable. If any sheep could be termed cute it is definitely this breed. However don’t be fooled by their looks as they are immensely hardy sheep, capable of living and lambing in extremes of weather at 3,000 feet that would be beyond other breeds. The conditions they live in mean they do not produce as many lambs as other breeds so their profitability for farmers is therefore low. And while the coarse, hardwearing wool produced by Herdwicks has generally declined in popularity and price, it is more recently enjoying a revival.
One of the best known champions of Herdwicks was Beatrix Potter. She took on 16 sheep when she bought Hill Top. She soon became captivated by the breed and devoted much of her farming life to it, using her book royalties to acquire thousands more sheep.
Her friend Canon Rawnsley founded the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association to promote the breed, and the group is still going strong today. Potter bequeathed her flock to the National Trust, which has continued her work to promote and protect Herdwicks via the farms it manages.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of Herdwicks has been to the landscape they have helped to shape. Sheep have enormous conservation benefits, keeping bracken and scrub under control and prompting the enclosed fields, dry stone walls, drove roads and intake land on the slopes that are all so familiar to visitors.
A Calendar For Sheep Farming In The Lake District
October-November – Tups (males) put in with ewes (females) on the lowland
December – Ewes returned to the fells until lambing time Ewes brought down for lambing
March-April – Lambs get flock marks. Ewes with single lambs return to the fells
May – All sheep clipped
July – Lambs weaned from their mothers
September – Sheep dipped, ewes returned to fells
October – Wether lambs (castrated males) sold or fattened for sale
November – Gimmer lambs (young females) sent to winter on lowland fells