a year in the life of a Herdwick sheep
The Herdwick is a hardy sheep breed, perfectly suited to life on the high fells of the Lake District. They are affectionately known as ‘the gardeners of the Lake District’, as centuries of continuous grazing has created the Lakeland landscape we know and love.
In December, the sheep are left to wander the high fells (mountains) for the winter months. Herdwick sheep are pretty clever; they know to stay on their particular area of fellside or “heaf”, which means that they don’t need to be fenced in. Here they are free to graze the upland common land mingling with sheep from other farms, foraging on a natural diet of heathers and grasses.
The mountains can be treacherous in the winter, especially if it snows. Sometimes the sheep can get in a little bit of trouble, but the farmer is always on hand to keep them out of mischief.
In the spring pregnant ewes are brought down to the in-bye land (the bottom of the valley) and have their lambs in the lush, green fields. Herdwick lambs are born black and as they grow, their fleece lightens to a dark brown. After the young, dark brown sheep have been sheared, they turn a steel grey colour which continues to lighten with age. Because of their meagre diet, Herdwick sheep usually give birth to only one lamb although they have been known occasionally to have twins.
When the lambs are strong enough, the sheep are returned back to the open fells to enjoy the warmer weather. Mothers teach their lambs ‘heafing’ behaviour, so they learn which area of the mountain to call home.
Herdwicks are sheared later than most sheep breeds, often being clipped in late July through to August. The sheep are sheared more for welfare reasons these days than to make money from the wool. Clipping day is a very collaborative affair, with farmers working together to clip their flocks of sheep; a team of four can shear over 1000 sheep in one day. It’s back breaking but essential work.
The traditional shepherds’ meet shows, held at this time of year, are an opportunity for the farming community to come together. It’s at the shepherds’ meet that farmers bring along their best ewes and tups to compete for prizes for the best examples of the breed.
Lambs are weaned, and the ewes are fattened up on the lowland grass ready to be put with the tups in November. Older ewes are kept on the in-bye land for cross-breeding with tups of other species, usually a Texel, Charolais or a Cheviot.
Wether lambs (castrated males) are either sold or kept on the farm to fatten before they turn a year old. Female or ‘gimmer’ lambs, are put back on the fell to find the ‘heaf’ where they spent their first summer with their mums.
In November, tups are put out to the ewes for breeding. If the shepherd is a “stockman” then they will usually choose particular ewes with complementary characteristics to breed the best sheep. Young sheep (under two years old) and ewes related to the rams are not tupped.
The next time you’re in the Lakes, look out for the cute & lovable Herdwick Sheep. Tweet us with a photo @herdysleep and let us know if you spot one.