Lakeland's Herdwick Sheep

The native sheep of the Lake District is the Herdwick with its distinctive stoic white face and strong white legs. The sheep have been grazing the fells of the Lake District for hundreds of years. You will encounter these distinctive and hardy on the high fells of the Lake District, as well as in the valley bottoms.

Lakelands Herdwick Sheep

History Of The Herdwick

Folklore has it that the Herdwick was brought here by Viking settlers The name Herdwick being and anglicized version of the old Norse word Herdvyck [1], meaning sheep pasture. This piece of folklore is also supported by the ancient Lakeland way of counting sheep – Yan, Tan, Tethera, etc. which has a great similarity with the Celtic and Danish words [2].

Despite the prevalence of Herdwick sheep today, their survival as a breed was threatened by low prices. It was Beatrix Potter, with proceeds from the sale of her popular children’s books, that bought up many sheep farms and insisted on them rearing Herdwick sheep. She eventually bequeathed these farms to the National Trust.

Characteristics Of Herdwick Sheep

Herdwick sheep have a reputation for being able to survive and thrive on the most difficult terrain of the Lakeland Fells. They have strong, thick legs and a broad face. The rams are horned, while the ewes are naturally polled (without a horn). The defining characteristics of Herdwick breed are maintained by the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association.

Herdwick Ram With Curled Horn

Herdwick Lambs

Herdwick lambs are born with an entirely dark fleece and black legs and face. As the lamb matures, the face and legs become white and the fleece gradually becomes lighter, becoming coarse and grey. Herdwick ewes are put with a ram in late October / early November with the lambs being born in late April and early May. Herdwicks generally only have one lamb, though two lambs are becoming more common as the ewes are better cared for. 

Herdwick Ewe With Lamb At Foot

Due to the slow maturing of the breed, Herdwick sheep are not slaughtered as lambs but kept for a year as shearlings, when the meat is referred to as mutton. Herdwick lamb and mutton is now recognised as a Protected Designation Of Origin by the European Union. This means it can only be called Lakeland Herdwick if it has been born, raised and slaughtered in Cumbria.

A Hefted Flock

Herdwick flocks are renowned for associating themselves with particular regions of the fellside upon which they are raised. The Herdwick flocks are left to roam the mainly open fells of the Lakes but have a strong tendency to stay in the area, or heaf, in which they were raised. Thus, the flock is regarded as being hefted to a particular region of the fells. This has the implication that when a farm is sold, the Herdwick flock is sold along with it.

Herdwick Sheep Hefted To Fell

 

As Herdwicks graze the open fell, it is often the case that individual sheep get mixed in with a flock different from their own, especially when the sheep are brought down from the fells at tupping time. Marks, or Smits, are used to identify the owner of a particular sheep. In the past, Shepherd’s Meets were used to exchange sheep and return them to their rightful owner. Although ear tags are used to identify sheep today, Smit marks can still be seen on sheep as they graze the fells.

Smit marks are quite different from tup (ram) marks. At tupping time (mating time), rams are raddled with a coloured dye to identify which ewes they have covered (mated with). You will often see a variety of colours on the backs of ewes. These marks are different again from the ‘rudding’ (a red dye) that is applied to Herdwicks, ahead of shows and sales, in order to enhance their appearance.

 

Rudded Herdwick Sheep At Auction

Uses Of Herdwick Wool

The typical weight of a Herdwick fleece is 1.5 – 2 Kg, the wool is coarse, with a fibre length, or staple, of 15 – 20cm. The main use of the wool has been carpets and tweeds. Recent, more innovative uses include felting, loft-insulation and compost.

Herdwick Gifts, Pictures And Wool

You will see many representations of the iconic face of the Herdwick on gifts and stationery. But, if you want to purchase a truly authentic Herdwick memento to mark your visit to the Lake District, then visit the Wool Clip in Caldbeck. Here you will find fleeces, yarns and finished scarves, etc. – all sourced from local Herdwick flocks and made locally.

The Wool Clip At Caldbeck

References And Further Reading

1. Rough Guide To The Lake District

2. “The Lake District, The Ultimate Guide”, Gordon Readyhough, 2004, Hayloft Publishing Limited ISBN 1 904524 11 7