Life of the Herdwick
For many, the Herdwick sheep are a symbol of the Lake District. Don’t be fooled by their cute, lovable faces though; this breed is widely regarded as one of the hardiest in the UK. Living on some of the UK’s highest mountains throughout the harsh winter months, the Herdwick breed is perfectly adapted to life on the high fells of the Lake District.
Herdwicks & The Fells
The majority of the land where Herdwicks are farmed is unfenced and the sheep are free to roam where they wish. However, Herdwicks have an in-built homing instinct that is passed from generation to generation about which part of the fell they are supposed to graze on. This ‘heafing’ behaviour is taught by ewes to their lambs, and the knowledge of their roaming land will stay with them throughout their life.
As Herdwick sheep are ‘heafed’ to their particular fell, it would be disastrous if a flock was sold along with a farm. Therefore farms are typically bought or rented with existing flocks in place, as these Herdwick sheep have lifelong knowledge of that particular fell which couldn’t be re-taught. So just think, the next time you spot some Herdwicks roaming on the fells, it is likely that their ancestors have roamed that same area for centuries.
Herdwick sheep are often referred to as the Guardians of the Fells. Without the sheep, the fells would not look the way that they do today. Their continuous grazing on the heather and grass keeps the bracken and scrub under control, creating the beautiful Lake District landscape that we know and love.
The Development of a Herdwick
If you visit the Lake District during lambing season, you may be surprised to see Herdwick lambs are born jet black. The lamb’s fleece gradually lightens after it has been born, turning a dark brown. This first chocolate brown fleece is known as the hog fleece. At around 15 months old, the young sheep are shorn for the first time. After this, their fleece turns to the distinctive steel grey colour that is associated with the Herdwick breed. As the Herdwick ages, the brittle white ‘kemp’ fibres increase and by the fifth shearing, the fleece is a very light grey.
An adult Herdwick sheep is characterised by:
- White head and legs
- Rams are usually horned
- Broad long bodies
- Muscular shape
- Slate-grey fleeces
The Herdwicks have been bred to withstand the harshest winter weather and they have adapted to survive in these conditions over thousands of years. Herdwicks have two coats: a woolly waistcoat and a hairy outer coat. The thick, wiry outer coat protects the sheep in the toughest of winters enabling them to survive the relentless rain and cold on fells at heights of 3,000 ft. The fleece contains a selection of fibres including wool and kemp, with a staple of up to 10 inches so it does not part in the wind, and sheds water.
History of the Herdwick
The lovable Herdwick sheep has been synonymous with the Lake District for centuries, but how did they come to roam some of England’s highest mountains in the first place?
Local Cumbrian folklore suggests that Herdwicks came across with Viking settlers, whilst others believe that they swam to safety from a sinking Spanish galleon. And whilst their origins are still unclear, the name Herdwick appears to have been derived from the Norse term ‘Herdwyck’, which means ‘sheep pasture’ and the earliest record of the breed in the UK was in documents dating back to the 12th century.
Genetic evidence seems to support these claims too, with a study being carried out by The Sheep Trust at the University of York in 2014 that looked at the genetic structures of Herdwick sheep, as well as other upland breeds. It was suggested that Herdwicks may originate from a founder flock living in Sweden and Finland, as well as Orkney and Iceland, supporting the Cumbrian folklore.
A Year in the Life of a Herdwick
November is mating season, also known as tupping time. This is where the tups are put out to the ewes for breeding on the inbye land. If the shepherd is a “stockman” then they will usually choose particular ewes with complementary characteristics to breed the best sheep. Young sheep who are under the age of two, and ewes who are related to the rams are not tupped.
Just before Christmas, the ewes return to the high fells of the Lake District, roaming the mountains through the harsh winter months. They remain up on the fells until April, often without any supplementary feed, foraging and surviving on a diet of heather and grass.
April – May
In the spring, pregnant ewes are bought down from to fells to the in-bye land and have their lambs in the lush, green fields. The date of lambing is timed for the beginning of good weather, and so that lambs hit the ground just as the grass is starting to grow on the in-bye land.
Due to the ewes meagre diet throughout the winter, it is common for them to just have single lambs although they can also have twins.
Lambing is the busiest time of year for all sheep farmers. Although experienced ewes often don’t need much assistance, farmers need to watch over them carefully paying particular attention to young ewes who are lambing for the first time.
Ewes with single lambs are returned to the fells where they begin to teach their lambs heafing behaviour. Often ewes with twin lambs are kept lower down until clipping time.
July – August
In the summer months, all the sheep are clipped. The first to be clipped are the geld sheep (the sheep without lambs). A lot of farmers work together at this time to help clip each other’s sheep, with a team of four shearers able to clip around 1000 sheep a day!
A short time after the sheep have been clipped (leaving enough time so that their new coat has started to grow) they are dipped. This involves dipping the flock in a solution which kills parasites.
The lambs are weaned from their mothers in September. 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 breeds, usually a Texel or a Cheviot.
Wether lambs (young castrated males) are either sold or kept on the farm to fatten before they turn a year old.
The gimmers (young females) are kept and raised as replacements for the flock or sold as breeding sheep.
Uses of Herdwick Wool
Herdwick wool has typically had little commercial value. The coarse nature of the wool sadly doesn’t lend itself to clothing and garments in the same way that other types of wool does, and its difficulty to dye has meant that its uses have been limited.
Herdwick wool has almost become a waste product in the region, with clipping taking place in the summer months primarily for the welfare of the sheep. In the past, we’ve heard stories of Herdwick farmers burning the wool as the cost to transport it to be sold would outweigh the return they would get. Unfortunately stories like this are not uncommon in the area, which is terrible considering what a fantastic natural product this wool is. This got us thinking about how we can use this brilliant fibre whilst supporting our local rural economy, and so herdysleep was born.
Coarse and wiry, Herdwick wool may not be comfortable to wear but when used as a mattress filling, it is the perfect choice as it is naturally supportive and durable. It is highly absorbent, meaning any moisture is wicked away from your body keeping you cool and dry throughout the night. Herdwick wool also helps to regulate your body temperature, keeping you cool in the summer but warm in the winter, whilst being natural antibacterial and hypoallergenic – ideal for those with allergies!
At herdysleep, we work with a co-operative of Herdwick farmers in the Lake District and Cumbria, buying fleeces directly from these farmers at a fair trade rate, considerably higher than the market value for Herdwick wool. It is so important to support our local rural economy, and by reinstating some much needed support to these upland fell farmers.
Beatrix Potter & The Herdwicks
Did ewe know that Beatrix Potter was one of the key figures in saving Herdwick sheep from extinction?
A great lover of the Lake District from holidaying there as a child, Beatrix Potter bought Hill Top Farm in 1905 from the early proceeds of her book sales, and it was here where she continued to write some of her most famous books including The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. She continued to purchase farms across the Lake District, and became a well-respected Herdwick breeder winning a number of prizes for her sheep at local shows. In 1943 she was voted the first female President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association, showing how highly she was regarded in the farming community.
Throughout her life, Potter was a keen supporter of the National Trust, following their principles regarding land management, farming methods and maintenance of traditional buildings. On her death, Beatrix Potter bequeathed fifteen farms and over 4000 acres of land to the National Trust along with her prized flocks of Herdwick sheep. She stipulated that the land and farms should continue to be working farms, and were to breed pure Herdwick sheep, as she understood the need to preserve rural cultural and the beautiful Lake District landscape. For this reason, she has been widely regarded as one of the key saviours of the Herdwick breed.