Beatrix Potter & the Herdwick

July 28th is a special day in the Lake District. It marks the birthday of Beatrix Potter: beloved children’s author, keen mycologist, pioneering conservationist, and formidable Herdwick sheep breeder.

Millions of people around the world are familiar with Potter’s children’s books, especially The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which she wrote and self-published in her 30s. What people may not know is that, in her later years, Beatrix Potter—or “Mrs Heelis” to the Lake District locals—became a highly-regarded Herdwick sheep breeder and champion of preserving the Lake District, its people, and its way of life.

Young Beatrix, the nature lover

Even as a child, Beatrix Potter showed a keen eye and interest in the natural world. Born into a upper-class household, her family spent many holidays in Scotland and the Lake District, where she developed her love of the landscape including all its flora and fauna.

She would take notes, too, and make watercolours of all the animals and plants she studied. She became so proficient at this that she ended up being valued highly as a mycologist: a person who studies fungi.

Thirlmere, painted in the late 19th century

Returning to her Lake District heaf

"Hill Top house" by Chris Brown, licensed CC-2.0
"Hill Top house" by Chris Brown, licensed CC-2.0

The call of the Lake District and the happy memories she had of the place during her childhood, was inescapable. In 1905 Beatrix Potter purchased the now-famous Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, the Lake District, and quickly adapted to farm life. It was here that she painted, wrote her books (thirty in total), and started to learn farm management. Some of her most popular work, including The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907)The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908) and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (1908) were written at Hill Top Farm and reflected a deep love she had of farm life and her surroundings.

In 1909, Beatrix Potter purchased a second property: Castle Farm in Sawrey. Her land acquisitions increased in frequency, guided and encouraged by her solicitor William Heelis, and by 1923 she had purchased Troutbeck Park, an enormous disease-ridden sheep farm in the Troutbeck valley that she restored back to health.

Beatrix Potter's Herdwick legacy

In her mid-40s Beatrix Potter and her now-husband William Heelis were enthusiastic supporters of the land conservation movement; Beatrix herself being a good friend of National Trust founder Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. She participated in her community fully; serving on committees to improve rural living, opposing hydroplanes on Lake Windermere, and founding a nursing trust to improve the healthcare of local residents.

Beatrix Potter also became a passionate and respected breeder of Herdwick sheep. She was admired by fellow shepherds for her willingness to experiment with the latest biological remedies for common diseases of sheep, and for her continued employment of the best shepherds and farm managers. By 1943 Beatrix Potter was voted President-elect of the HSBA (Herdwick Sheep Breeds Association), the first woman to be so.

Soon enough, her sheep started winning shows with the aid of her top shepherd Tom Storey. Of particular note was a champion Herdwick tup of hers called Saddleback Wedgewood, which was referenced in one of her letters:

“A grand old champion of the fells is dead. Mr Joseph Cockbain’s celebrated Herdwick ram, Saddleback Wedgewood, has died on Jan 14th at Hill Top Farm, Sawrey […] Wedgewood was the perfect type of hard big boned Herdwick tup; with strong clean legs, springy fetlocks, broad scope, fine horns, a grand jacket and mane. He had strength without coarseness. A noble animal.”

On the 22nd December 1943 Beatrix Potter died of complications from pneumonia and heart disease. She bequeathed nearly all of her property to the National Trust: 4,000+ acres (16km2) of land, sixteen farms, cottages, and herds of cattle and Herdwick sheep, on condition that the land and farms continue to be working farms that breed pure Herdwick sheep. As a result, she is often credited with “saving” the breed. These days Herdwicks are flourishing in the Lake District, and we amongst others are fans of using their wonderfully thick and coarse wool to create artisanal, top-tier, British-made products.

The legacy of Beatrix Potter lives on, in the Herdwicks and the landscape. She recognised the cultural and natural importance of the Lake District and sought to preserve it for future generations to enjoy. We want to do our part in maintaining this UNESCO World Heritage site that we call home too, which is why we set up the herdyfund from day one.

Today you can directly help the Lake District fell farmers and the Herdwick sheep, by donating to the herdyfund.