To understand the way Herdwick sheep are farmed in the Lake District today, it’s best to look at its historical roots. From the first settlers to the present day anyone seeking to farm the Lake District has to find solutions to some daunting practical challenges; particularly the tough climate, and the large areas of unfenced common grazing land on the fells, and the small areas of cultivatable or better quality pasture land in the valley bottoms. Herdwick sheep and the way that they are farmed are the result of thousands of years of cultural development to address these challenges… If you thought Herdwicks were ‘just pretty sheep’ think again.
Before the Lake District was permanently settled by small farmers, it was a place people brought their flocks (on foot) to graze in the summer months, with the shepherds living in temporary shelters called ‘shielings’. This is because the Lake District fells and valleys can carry many more livestock in the summer when the grass grows than they can in the winter. Today this tradition continues in a different form: many Herdwicks are ‘wintered’ away on the low coastal areas or in the Eden Valley where the grass still grows through the winter, before returning in the Spring for the first growth of grass.
common land: order from chaos
Lake District farms tend to have a small amount of privately owned or managed ‘in-bye’ land or pasture in the valley bottoms, divided by dry-stone walls, and large areas of commonly grazed fell land. Each Lake District Herdwick farm is granted commoner grazing rights for a set number of sheep on any given common, that are set by custom to reflect the grazing capacity of the fell. This is a system that requires rules and customs to prevent abuse, cheating or mismanagement. Before mobile phones or e-mail, the only way that people could work collectively to manage this landscape was to have agreed traditions and practices that governed how the sheep and land were managed – literally making clear what everyone was supposed to do, when, and how. Travelling by road from one side of a common to the other to collect a stray can be as far as a 90 mile round trip. So gathering the flocks of sheep from the common land requires mutual cooperation between the farmers, with tradition dictating how the fells are gathered and when, with many farmers and their sheepdogs working together to divide the task and ensure that the work is efficient and effective.
whose sheep is it anyway?
Each farm has ways of identifying its sheep, so should any stray, or be mistakenly gathered to a neighbouring farmstead they can be identified and returned to the rightful owner. There are two traditional kinds of identification: ‘lug marks’ are small notches in the sheep’s ear in a set pattern that identifies the sheep’s owner; ‘smit marks’ are coloured marks on the sheep’s fleece. These marks are set by tradition and have been registered in a Shepherd’s Guide for the past 200 years. A stray sheep is identified by these marks, and detailed rules dictate how it is to be reunited with its owner. Special holding pens, or ‘penfolds’, exist around commons for holding strays until the owners are notified. Shepherds meet at set times at a series of ‘Shepherd’s Meets’ where they exchange stray sheep, judge the quality of their peer’s sheep, and socialise. These events still take place and are still an important part of the shepherd’s year.
homing sheep: no kidding
Herdwick sheep flocks were historically managed in such a way that the sheep know which bit of the fell they are supposed to graze, and unlike most other sheep breeds they keep to this ‘heaf’. Each generation of sheep pass this knowledge of belonging on to their offspring. Because these unique sheep have this in-built homing instinct it would be disastrous if the flock were sold when a farmer retired. So Lake District farms are bought or rented with the existing flocks of sheep in place (‘landlord flocks’). Incoming farmers inherit the flocks that belong to the land, and which have been in place for centuries, with respected peers' setting the price of purchase and judging the condition of the stock. Herdwick sheep are, literally, the living culture of the farming people of the Lake District.
why do herdwicks look like they do?
The way that Herdwick sheep look is mostly down to selective breeding over the centuries. These are practical hardy sheep designed to cope with the Lake District landscape, and their key attributes reflect this. Herdwick’s survive extreme winters better than any other breed because they have evolved and been selected to be tough. Herdwick sheep are primarily bred today for meat, so the physique of a Herdwick is important.
- Broad long body with a muscular shape.
- Heavy, dense coat of wool with an insulating undercoat of fine wool, perfect for surviving Lake District winters.
- A ram should be masculine, butch and deep-/lieasted (like Russell Crowe in Gladiator).
- A ram can have horns, or not, it doesn’t matter. A female should not have any sign of horns.
- The head and legs need to be strong-boned and sound as mountain-going sheep have to be extremely mobile.
Herdwick lambs are born black, but as they mature they develop white, or hoar-frosted, head and legs.
These are the basics. Aficionados of the breed can devote hours at events like Borrowdale Show or Keswick Tup Fair to assessing the differences between two sheep, as like any other cultural tradition this one has a degree of fashion and subjectivity.
herdy: a very special sheep
People used to think that Herdwick sheep were brought with the Vikings, or they swam ashore from a wrecked ship of the Spanish Armada… But the science suggests these are probably myths. The reality is that these hardy sheep have probably evolved through the ages and may well be the descendants of the sheep of the first settlers in pre-history. In this community both the farming families and the sheep have been rooted to this place for centuries… Many of the practices and traditions survive here because the unique geography has preserved a kind of farming that has been swept away across much of the rest of Western Europe. Wordsworth called it a ‘perfect republic of shepherds’ and thought it a model of how people might live everywhere.
Poets, writers and painters have been inspired by this landscape and its people, and have shaped the way that people around the world think about landscape and conservation. This is why the Lake District is in the process of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognised internationally as a ‘cultural landscape’. We hope that now that you know a bit more about these wonderful sheep and the people that manage them, that like us you’ll want to support them. Herdwick sheep and their shepherds really are the ‘guardians of a cherished landscape’.