Monday, 25 July 2011

Herdwick Sheep

Perhaps the main influence on the Lake District landscape is that which is exerted by upland hill farming. It's hard to imagine that without any human intervention by grazing with sheep or tree felling, many Lakeland valleys would be densely wooded up to the higher fells.

Cumbria has two native sheep breeds; the Rough Fell, which tends to be more common around the Shap fells to the east of the County and the Herdwick which is distributed over much of the central and western Fells.

Herdwick ram

Both native breeds are considered threatened by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) as over 75% of their population are found within a radius of less than 20 kilometres. This makes them extremely vulnerable to disease epidemics such as Foot and Mouth and Bluetongue. The most at risk of the two breeds is the Rough Fell which is listed as Category 2, Endangered.

Rough Fell ram

Although the Herwick is commonly seen around the central Lake District fells, it is listed as a Category 3 breed, which is classed as Vulnerable. The Herdwick is believed to have become established from a flock of 40 sheep that were washed ashore from a Norwegian ship that was wrecked off the Cumbrian coast in the tenth century, but nobody really knows for sure.

The Herdwick is an extremely hardy breed and can survive up on the high fells throughout the winter. Sheep owned by different farms remaining mostly separate due to their ability to become heafed (or hefted). Heafing is when individual sheep return to the area of fell where they were weaned as lambs. So if a lamb is brought up on a particular area of fell it will, by and large, remain in that area without the need for any fences.

When first born the lambs are very dark brown (almost black) in colour and as they mature firstly their faces start to become paler.

Herdwick lamb

The main body of the sheep also becomes lighter over time and at the age of around one year you have what is referred to as a hogget, or hog. 

Herdwick hogget

Eventually the hoggets lighten even more in colour to the characteristic grey fleece of the sheep that is most commonly encountered. The fleece these days is worth very little, though it is extremely hard-wearing so is excellent for making rugs and carpets and can also be blended with softer wool to make it more suitable for knitting.

Freshly sheared Herdwick ewes

Herdwick meat and woollen products are now much more widely available from farm shops and specialist retail outlets around Cumbria, so next time you see some why not give them a try?
All photos credited to K. Burrows

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