Herdwick sheep are the native breed of the central and western Lake District and live on the highest of England’s mountains.
The word “Herdwyck”, meaning sheep pasture, is recorded in documents going back to the 12th century. DNA analysis suggests that Herdwick sheep came over by boat with the Vikings a thousands years or more ago.
They are extremely hardy and are managed in the traditional way on the Lake District fells that have been their home for generations. They have been bred for hundreds of years to be “territorial”, it’s what farmers call “heafed” to the fell. This means they can be safely left on unfenced terrain and will not wander off their traditional patch. Ewes teach this behaviour to their lambs.
Herdwick lambs are born black, and after a year they lighten to a dark brown colour (the sheep are called hoggs or hoggets at this stage). After the first shearing, their fleece lightens further to grey.
Herdwick are bred to be tough enough to withstand appalling weather, allowing the felltops to be farmed at all. ‘A lot of people, particularly visitors, think the Lake District is natural. It isn’t. It is a managed environment and the management is done by these sheep.’ They are in balance with the environment, grazing heather and grass evenly, and keeping bracken and scrub under control. This keeps the world-famous “Lake District look” to the scenery.
Whenever I think of Herdwicks, I picture Wasdale, Eskdale, Buttermere and Borrowdale, the true Heartlands of Lakeland. In these places, the stoical Herdwick always looks just right in the mountains, head to the wind in the foulest of weather.
~A Portrait of Lakeland by Ian Lawson
The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 led to the destruction of many flocks, and to fears for the survival both of the breed and of the typical Lakeland sheep farming industry. Of the estimated 100,000 Herdwick sheep present before the outbreak, a full 25% were lost. Many Lake District residents saw the breed as an indispensable icon of the region.
The breed has survived due to the intent to preserve this unique animal as a crucial part of traditional Lakeland agriculture. Still far less in number than most commercial breeds; today there are around 50,000 breeding females. Herdwicks survive largely due to farming subsidies and the aid of the British National Trust.
Beatrix Potter Her Legacy Lives On: from ‘Herdwick A Portrait of Lakeland’ by Ian Lawson.
Longtime resident and writer for The Guardian, A. Harry Griffin expressed this feeling:
More than the old drystone walls that quarter the fells, the packhorse bridges or the whitewashed farmsteads, the little grey Herdwick sheep typify the Lakeland. If they and their shepherds go, that is the end of the Lakeland where I have climbed, walked, skied and skated for nearly 80 years; of the Lakeland I have written about nearly all my life.
The Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association is committed to protecting the Herdwicks past, present and future.
Our members sustain and uphold the cultural traditions of the Lake District that have made it the most loved of English landscapes. Because of the importance of our cultural tradition to this landscape we believe that it needs to be better understood, respected, and supported. Without hill farmers, the cultural landscape is a body without a beating heart.
~Amanda Carson HSBA