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Herdwicks - Herdwick Sheep and the Lake District
Herdwicks - Herdwick Sheep and the Lake District
Herdwicks are the native sheep of the Lake District, England's only mountain area.
Herdwick sheep are central to the outstanding cultural landscape and heritage of the area with about one hundred farms in the western and central Lake District still keeping Herdwick sheep on the fells.
This book traces the origin and development of the breed and reveals the fell farming year through numerous historical and current examples. It describes the arrangements for managing sheep on the fells, (many of which are common land) and the famous heafing behaviour of Herdwick sheep is examined in detail as are the roles of sheep dogs, sheepfolds, sheep identification marks, Shepherd's Guides and shepherds' meets.
The work of the many Herdwick families is documented as is the role of Mrs Heelis (as Beatrix Potter was known locally) putting both her contribution to the Herdwick sheep breeding community and also her legacy to the Lake District into perspective.
This book also looks at more recent challenges to Herdwick sheep keeping such as the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in Cumbria in 2001; reductions to stocking levels as a result of environmental schemes; and the reform of hill farming policy. It concludes by suggesting some ways forward to sustain a key part of the Lake District's cultural landscape.
Some colour and black and white photographs
When a refined writer from The Field reported on some Herdwick sheep that were exhibited in the Royal Show in Carlisle in 1880, he wrote: “They look like the last remnant of, we wont say barbarism, but of very ancient and primitive sheep breeding.”
There was no need for him to be so snooty. These tough animals are capable of surviving the harsh winters on the Cumbrian Fells and eking a living from the sparse grass. They were not bred to be mollycoddled and live in luxury. They are one of the sturdiest and most independent pf breeds and they have come to be a symbol of the hardiness of the fells.
No one is sure of the breed’s origin. One erroneous suggestion is that they escaped from a wrecked Spanish galleon during the great Armada. Another is that the Vikings brought them from Norway and bred them on the high fells. In all probability, the ancestors of today’s flocks were already resident in the fells and they may have interbred with imported strains.
Few people know more about Herdwicks than Geoff Brown, For many years, Geoff was Secretary of the Herdwick Sheepbreeder’s Association. His opinion is that: “The Herdwick breed of sheep, more or less as we know it today, was created by a community of fell farmers in the Lake District over a period of about a 100 years” during the nineteenth century. The sheep were sold at the fairs in places like Ennerdale Bridge and the breed evolved as the farmers bred their sheep for certain characteristics.
The indomitable Canon Rawnsley chaired the formation of a Herdwick Sheep Association in 1899. Herdwick mutton, he felt, was “the sweetest of its kind in Great Britain.” Above everything Rawnsley valued the shepherds and their traditional way of life, “We who live in the land of the shepherd must view with regret any passing into oblivion of shepherd customs or shepherd speech.”
Another great supporter of Herdwicks was Mrs Heelis, the stout Cumberland farmer who is usually remembered as Beatrix Potter. In her will she left her farms to the National Trust and she stipulated that the sheep should “continue to be of pure Herdwick breed.”
The stipulation was necessary as forestry, changing farming practices and disease were an ever-present threat to the survival of the breed.
The Herdwick has long been an integral part of the fellside landscape and community. The breed’s very existence continues to be under threat from commercial pressures as subsidies change and prices fall. When once the farmer might have received a pound for a fleece, he now receives a few pence and newly shorn fleeces are often burnt on the spot. The meat’s reputation for succulence – Herdwick mutton was eaten at the Coronation Dinner in 1953 – offers the opportunity for branding and marketing and better prices.
One thing is certain. If the Herdwick does not graze the fells, the fells as we know them will change out of recognition.
With justice, Geoff Brown has dedicated this book to the sheep dogs of the Lakeland Fells. This book tells all there is to know about the history of the breed, about farming practices and customs, about heafing and sheepfolds, sheep identification marks, Shepherd Guides and shepherds’ meets. The sheep dogs are the only ones who might have anything useful to add to this comprehensive survey.
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