May & June On A Herdwick Sheep Farm
Tales from a Herdwick farm, guest written by a Herdwick farmer.
There isn’t really a quiet time on a traditional hill farm, but the nearest we get to one is in May and June. It's not so much that there isn’t lots to do, there is, but compared with the stress and work of lambing time it seems easier, and the grass growing and sun shining lifts your spirits so it's a pleasure to work outside again. It's like the farm has come back to life, and when the grass starts to grow we don’t have to worry about the sheep getting enough to eat and milking their lambs (though a cold snap in May often costs us some ewes and lambs who struggle with the shock of it when they are in full milk). When the last lambs are born and strengthened up, we are suddenly able to chill out a bit, and need not check them every hour or two.
In May we gather into the sheep pens the fields full of ewes and lambs that have been in the valley bottom meadows (the valley echoes with ewes and lambs calling for one another as they get themselves temporarily muddled up and un-mothered). The lambs all have to be ‘doctored’; injected with vaccines for preventable illnesses, wormed with an oral drench (as the parasites come to life again with the warmth), marked with our flock ‘smit mark’ with greasy paint (blue and red shoulder is our mark as dictated by the Lake District Flock Book), and tagged with their two 14 digit micro-chipped tags (a legal requirement), and notched in their ears to show they belong to our farm. With hundreds of lambs that's quite a lot of work, and lots of opportunities for mistakes. People talk about ‘easy-care’ sheep, but the truth is all sheep need fairly regular maintenance and monitoring. We use a spray to stop blowflies laying eggs on our sheep as in June and July some would be ‘struck’ without this and would eventually die a horrible death.
When the ewes and lambs are ‘doctored’ they can be moved to the higher ground. On the hardest Lakeland farms most, or even all, of the ewes and lambs go back to the fell at this stage. On ours the ewes with singles go on the hardest intakes, and those with twins go on slightly better fields where we can keep them milking.
Herdwick lambs that go to the fell now start to learn to hold to their ‘heaf’, because their mothers return to the area on the fell where they were born and reared, and teach their lambs the same attachment to place. If the lambs didn’t go to the fell and learn like this, the system would break down. This ‘hefting’ system allows the Lake District with its massive areas of common (unfenced and collectively farmed) land to be farmed. Each farm has a ‘stint’ on the common or multiple commons and an agreed number of sheep that can graze that stint. This was based historically on the numbers of sheep that could be grazed on the valley bottom land in the winter months. Traditionally this system was managed by peer pressure and by ‘courts’ where offenders were punished. Today it is dictated by Natural England.
Herdwick sheep stay with the farms through changes of tenancy or ownership, because they are ‘heafed’, and it is in everyone’s interest that they do. So the sheep we farm are descendants of the sheep that lived on this land, and the surrounding fells, centuries, maybe even thousands of years ago. The farms left by Beatrix Potter, and others, to the National Trust have ‘landlord flocks’, which makes Trust the owner of thousands of Herdwick sheep. Our job is to keep this going, and pass it on intact.
Farming the Lake District revolves around one simple reality: the short growing season for grass on the fells. We take advantage of this growing season in just the same way that the first settlers did maybe 5 thousand years ago. We time our lambing time so that the lambs hit the ground as the grass starts to grow, are reared through the green, lush and pleasant summer and autumn months when their mothers will get enough nutrition to milk them, and sold in the autumn (September, October and November) in good condition before the growing season ends and the farm’s carrying capacity reduces massively. By December at latest the farms can only carry the core ewe flocks with some help from us feeding them the summer’s crop. So, in May and June the valley bottom meadows are cleared of sheep, the walls repaired, and the sheep kicked up the hill to the new grass, and the meadows allowed to flower and spurt into life. Soon they are lush green carpets of grass which we will make into hay (or haylage) in July or August.
Then we breathe a sigh of relief that we have reached spring (about three months after Southern England) and we have a little fun, by attending, and maybe showing at the Spring Tup (Ram) Fairs at Keswick and Eskdale. These were traditionally gatherings when the borrowed tups were returned to the breeders/owners after being used by others. But they were probably always social occasions as well, and a chance to catch up with old friends and have a beer or two. Keswick Tup Fair happens on the ‘the Thursday after the third Wednesday in May’… Figure that out! Before mobile phones and e-mail the shepherds in the different valleys had to know a set time when they met up, so such rules emerged. The proudest thing you can call a shepherd is ‘a good stockman’, and winning a tup fair is one way to show your skill. It is also a serious business showcasing your tups that will be for sale in the autumn. This year Keswick tup fair was won by the Blands from West Head, one of the biggest and best Herdwick farms, and one of the oldest Herdwick farming families.