The English Lake District – A Perfect Republic of Shepherds

The end of October is celebration for many things. The extra hour in bed when the clocks fell back to mark the end of British Summer Time, or fancy-dress parties with trick or treating for children on Halloween before All Saints Day or the half term holidays.

However, did you know that every year, the last Saturday of October is a day of celebration of sheep for their wool, lanolin, milk, and cheese as well as for their meat. In my view, the prettiest sheep in the UK is the Herdwick. Its striking black fleece against the fell is a common sight in the heart of the English Lake District, recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The traditional farming of this native breed is an important aspect of the heritage designation. This celebrated landscape was also the birth of the Romantic Movement and the land conservation movement, and it was described by William Wordsworth as ‘a perfect republic of shepherds and agriculturalists’.

Herdwick Ewe and Lamb, image by K Nagashima

Although there are many breeds of sheep farmed in Cumbria, including the most popular breeds of Swaledale, Rough Fell and Texel, according to some Lakeland sources, there are around 50,000 Herdwick sheep in the UK with some 95% of them living within 15 miles of Coniston. So, it is easy to see how this breed has become a symbol of the Lakes District and influenced the shaping of its upland farming character, by keeping the fells free of trees. The traditional dry-stone walls, which are an important feature of Cumbria, were first introduced to keep livestock such as sheep contained and to protect the land. The local farming terms used regularly include words from Cumbric (1); that of yan, tan, tethera and so on (2).

Herdwicks of Cumbria, image by A Pickering

This friendly animal with its expressive white face and legs was first introduced to the UK, according to old records, in around 6th Century. Its name is derived of the work ‘Herdwyk’ in Old Norse language, meaning ‘sheep pasture’. It is thought that the Vikings brought the breed with them when they settled in Cumbria. Whilst this may be considered a legend, there is a genetic link to the Texel sheep from Texel Island, Netherlands which is close to Viking territory making this a strong possibility. However, genetic studies have also shown that the Herdwick descends from the wild Northern Pin Tail sheep, which was introduced to Britain 5500 years ago, some 5000 years after the first know domestication of sheep in Europe.

Herdwick, image by K Nagashima

The Herdwick is farmed here for its tasty meat and to produce lambs. When the lambs are born , they are a beautiful jet black. After the first year they lighten slightly to a dark brown and after their first shearing, to a dark grey. By this time their faces and legs have turned white. The Herwick fleece has been less popular in the past due to its grey coarse texture making it difficult to dye, but Herdwick knitted and woven products such as hats, scarfs, bags, throws and soft toys, as well as crockery featuring their friendly faces have become popular gifts and souvenirs (3). Its fleece is also used in carpets and as loft insulation due to its fireproof properties. This high-quality durable wool is very warm and often Herdwick sheep survive in blizzards for days due to its protective properties.

One important aspect of the survival of the farming of Herdwicks in the Lake District is Beatrix Potter’s connection. After moving to Near Sawrey, Beatrix continued farming the land that had been farmed before her arrival. She bred Herdwick sheep and won prizes at shows in Cumbria. Just before her death she was elected president of the Herdwick Breeders Association too. Following her death, she gave 4000 acres to the National Trust with the requirement that they continue to graze Herwick sheep. So Herdwick sheep were as important to Beatrix as Peter Rabbit and friends and have survived because of her legacy.

On tours of Cumbria, you will see Herdwick sheep, visit Herdwick craft shops and can even hug a Herdwick, which is a great experience especially if your visit falls close to the National Hug a Sheep Day – which was last Saturday on 28 October.

So here’s a belated Happy National Hug a Sheep Day 2023 to all!

References

1 Local Brythonic Celtic language
2 Yan tan tethera Wikipedia Republished
3 Other sheep breeds are kept in the lower lands to produce the tastiest cheese and milk too.

 

About the Author

Alexandra Fairclough (Alexatours) is a Blue Badge Guide for Cumbria. She specialises in cultural heritage tours including architecture, landscape and literature as well as including visits to farms to meet these baa-tiful animals. Huge thanks goes to Alexandra’s fellow professional Blue Badge guides Alison Pickering and Konomi Nagashima for the use of their images.  You can book a tour with Alexandra HERE