Lost Words on the Ullswater Way

Ullswater Evening (Zoom) Talk by Jamie Normington, Education Officer of Cumbria Wildlife Trust

It was the eve before our second lockdown. The US elections were hanging in the balance. Many of us were feeling anxious, perhaps even fearful, of what the future might bring. 

Jamie Normington had been due to talk about “The Lost Words on the Ullswater Way”  back in April at Watermillock Village Hall but the first lockdown put pay to this. Instead there were 50 of us, some from as far away as Canada, gathered virtually for what was to be a truly magical experience. To set the scene Jamie played us the Lost Words Spell Song Blessing.

To begin his talk Jamie introduced us to our first lost word, conker, showing us an image of a young girl who clearly didn’t know how to play conkers and probably, like too many young people of today, doesn’t even know the word conker.   In contrast we saw the beaming smile of highly skilled, 88-year-old John Riley, a Chelsea Pensioner who was conker champion at 85. He has probably played conkers every autumn since being a young lad – conker is a very familiar word to him.

Together with bluebell, otter, fern and kingfisher, conker was one of 50 nature words removed from the Junior Oxford Dictionary when it was revised in 2017.  These are words that we use to describe what we see and come to value when we spend time exploring the outdoors. They were replaced by words such as ‘broadband’ and ’email’.

Illustrator Jackie Morris was deeply concerned to see our connection to the natural world fading in this way. She shared her concerns with writer Robert Macfarlane and together they have created a magical book, ‘The Lost Words – A Spell Book’ which aims to conjure back these lost words. 

Cover of ‘The Lost Words’ by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

The book begins…

“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed – fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker – gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren … all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.”

Jamie showed us the book, explaining that each of the lost words is first introduced by its absence – hiding on a page of scattered letters. Turn the page to find the word – starling for example – elevated to a gold icon, title for the spell that follows, and beautifully illustrated on the opposite page.  Turn again and see starlings in their habitat, gathering on the telegraph wires before taking to the skies in thousands to form a murmuration.

Illustration by Jackie Morris for ‘The Lost Words’

Jamie described to us his first sighting of a murmuration, shared with his friend Pete, who unlike Jamie, had been wise enough to wear a hat. After wheeling and diving in the skies above them, an estimated quarter of a million starlings settled down for the night in a small conifer plantation close to where Jamie and Pete were standing.

Not long after discovering ‘The Lost Words – a Spell Book’, Jamie was due to take a sabbatical and wanted to challenge himself by completing the Coast to Coast long distance walk. As he walked he would explore what the lost words meant to him and also to those he met along the way. He would wonder about the interconnectedness of the natural world and reflect on his own connections to nature.  

Following advice and inspiration from friends, he also decided to use the walk to raise money for charity – firstly to buy copies of ‘The Lost Words’ for primary schools in Cumbria and secondly to support children with autism.

It was June when Jamie set off from St Bees, spare boots, three pairs of his favourite socks and a copy of ‘The Lost Words’ in his backpack. By the time he reached Grasmere he had holes in all his socks and a huge blister but, after a few purchases in Keswick he was all set to tackle Helvellyn. On the way up Jamie, struggling with a borrowed walking stick that seemed to be broken, met a man coming down. He asked if the man could fix his stick. Sadly, he couldn’t and became angry. However, when Jamie showed him ‘The Lost Words’ his mood changed – or at least it did until he came to dandelion, at which point he said, “I bloody hate dandelions”. Jamie reminded him that dandelions are bumblebees’ breakfast, providing food early in the year when the queens emerge from hibernation. He still wasn’t impressed, even when a bumblebee landed on the page. Jamie had discovered that even those who love nature often dislike particular plants or animals.

Illustration by Jackie Morris for ‘The Lost Words’

As Jamie continues his journey he introduces us to others he meets along the way

On the top of Helvellyn, he met a boy called Reuben and his parents. Reuben had “a face like thunder”. His classmates were on a school trip to Ambleside but it was decided that Reuben, who is autistic, might have been overwhelmed by the Ambleside experience so he had been asked what he would like to do instead. He had chosen to run up Helvellyn with his parents. Jamie took ‘The Lost Words’ from his backpack and asked Reuben if he would like to look at it. Immersed in the book, Reuben’s look softened. He chose otter as his favourite word.  As the family headed off, Reuben came over to Jamie and offered him a jaffa cake. The lost words had helped Reuben, who sometimes struggles to connect with people, to make a connection with Jamie.

Reuben and his mum Ann-Marie on Helvellyn summit – picture by Rob Bushby

Otters, Jamie reminded us, are a triumph of conservation success. They have now returned to all the water courses in the Ullswater Valley, following efforts by landowners and others to improve the health and water quality of the rivers and streams. He mentioned the dedication of Steve Hewitt, from the Tullie House Museum, who has walked the shores of Ullswater collecting otter spraint and analysing it to look for unusual fish scales – those of the schelly, which rises from the depths to the surface just once a year to breed.

On Helvellyn Jamie was walking with Rob, who used to work for the John Muir Trust. Rob had suggested they walk over Striding Edge and take a photo of Jamie reading ‘The Lost Words’ with the impressive view of Striding Edge behind him. As they prepared for the photo a group of fellow walkers soon gathered around them, intrigued to see what was going on. Jamie talked to them about the book and asked them to choose which spell he should read. They picked Bluebell, a difficult choice for Jamie who had promised his wife he would never again read bluebell aloud because it had made her so sad. Clearly the spells work their magic in different ways for different people.

Jamie reading Bluebell on Striding Edge – picture by Rob Bushby

Jamie spent that night at Greenside Youth Hostel in Glenridding and the following morning walked, via Lanty’s Tarn, to Patterdale school to talk to the pupils. By chance, one of the children had a birthday that day. Jamie asked what he had been given for his birthday present and the very confident little boy said “a knife”. Somewhat surprised, Jamie asked what kind of knife and the little boy replied, “a whittling knife”. He likes to whittle animals and people. He also told Jamie he was a survival expert. Here was someone who probably knew many of the lost words.

Walking on to Angle Tarn, Jamie met Isaac, who works for the John Muir Trust, and was previously an apprentice with the Cumbria Wildlife Trust. He chose skylarks as his favourite lost word. 

Isaac from John Muir Trust at Angle Tarn

A little further on he came across Steve and Beth Pipe, who turned out to be writers and ambassadors for the outdoors with strong feelings of connection to the natural world. They chose dandelion as their lost word. They also asked Jamie to help them with a secret royal visit that was due to happen a few days later. Prince William and Kate were due to visit Ullswater and Beth and Steve were organising a part of their visit. They asked Jamie to help engage the Patterdale School children who were to accompany the royal couple on a walk onto the fells behind the school.  After the visit, which took place a few days later, Prince William said he would write to the publishers of the Oxford Junior Dictionary about the lost words. Both he and Kate feel strongly that it is important for all of us to have a connection to nature.  

Picture Credit: Kensington Palace

On to Haweswater and then to Jamie’s home county of Yorkshire and the heather moorlands where he grew up. He describes heather moorlands as an abused habitat, citing crimes against hen harriers, the shooting of hares in Scotland and the excessive burning carried out for grouse shooting. Sadly, on his walk, he came across an illegal trap on the grouse moors. The traps are intended to catch stoats and weasels (weasel is a lost word) but this one was missing its protective mesh so larger animals could be caught too.  Jamie kicked the trap to trigger it, to ensure that it could not catch anything that day.  But he was angry and kicked it so hard that it broke. Realising he had committed a crime, he took the broken trap with him, committing another crime. However, he later spoke to the wildlife police about what he had done and they were understanding.

Trap – set illegally (without proper restriction) in 2019. New 2020 laws have now made this particular Fenn mechanism illegal.

Through his walk Jamie raised enough funds to provide copies of ‘The Lost Words’ to 300 schools and organisations in Cumbria. As a result Cumbria has gone gold on the map created by Harry Whinney ‘Gorsebush’ to show where ‘The Lost Words’ books are already working their magic. Northumberland has now turned gold too. Jamie also made a donation to support autistic children, after learning that his 8-year-old nephew, who is autistic, had just had his school support withdrawn. 

Map by Harry Whinney ‘Gorsebush’

Perhaps even more important are the ripples Jamie is causing as he shares his experiences and, through his stories, illustrates the power of the lost words to connect people with nature and with each other. 

“So let these spells ring far and wide; speak their words and seek their art, let the wild world into your eyes, your voice, your heart.” (from, ‘The Lost Spells’, the latest book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris)

Cover of ‘The Lost Spells’ by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

You can follow the rest of Jamie’s journey on his blog. https://200milesofskylarks.wordpress.com/

For free resources based on ‘The Lost Words’ go to https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/initiatives/the-lost-words

by Anne Clarke

Nature-Friendly Farming

Ullswater Evening (Zoom) Talk by Danny Teasdale

Danny Teasdale founded Ullswater Catchment Management CIC in the aftermath of Storm Desmond. His aim is to improve flood resilience throughout the catchment area in a way that creates habitats for wildlife, improves soil quality and is a win win for farmers and the environment.

At his talk, via Zoom, on 1stOctober, Danny described a range of projects, explaining the actions he has taken, the reasoning behind them, and the benefits for natural flood management and nature recovery.

He began in the Grisedale Valley where, together with a group of volunteers, he has planted, 1500 trees. Once established these trees will hold back the water when the river is in spate so reduce the flow rate downstream. The farmer concerned was happy to have the trees because the land involved was always wet and boggy and he had lost a number of sheep there. It was, as Danny emphasised, “the right thing in the right place”.

Tree planting in Grisedale Valley

In Patterdale Storm Desmond created a number of landslips that impacted houses below them so, to stabilise the higher slopes, an upland tree planting project took place on Place Fell. Danny worked with the residents to plant a variety of native hardwoods, including rowan.

Tree planting on Place Fell

Upstream of Glenridding Storm Desmond deposited large amounts of gravel that changed the course of some sections of the river.  Working with the Environment Agency, and the farmer concerned, a flood relief channel was dug. It is only 400-500m long but, at times of high rainfall, it takes pressure off the main channel and slows the flow to the village below. 

Flood relief channel in Glenridding beck

Danny recognises that farming and conservation are often thought to be at loggerheads but, sitting in the middle he can see the issues from both sides and look for solutions where everyone benefits. He believes it is crucial to foster better understanding of both perspectives and to demonstrate that working together can be a win for both.

Improving soil quality is a good example of a win win situation. Farmers have more grass and more usable fields. The community gains because better quality soils hold more water and release it at a slower rate. For every 1% extra organic matter, soil can hold 20,000 more gallons per acre. In addition, good soil leads to more carbon sequestration. So Danny hopes to encourage soil improvement widely throughout the catchment area. 

Regenerative agriculture or mob grazing is another of Danny’s favoured techniques. It replicates how grasslands and natural grazing patterns have evolved in tandem. It basically allows the grass to have rest periods. Stock is grazed at increased density but only for a short period, 4-6 days, before being moved on. During its rest period, the grass roots grow longer so they can pull nutrients from deeper in the soil. This removes the need for artificial fertiliser. Ideally the stock eat a third, leave a third alone and trample a third into the soil. The trampled third acts in the same way as adding compost.  Danny described being amazed by the clouds of insects that rise up from the grass when the stock are eventually moved back into an area that has had time to rest. And, of course, with the insects come birds that feed on them. 

Regenerative Farming

An important aspect of Danny’s work are the farmers steering group meetings that he runs, together with his wife Maddy. These are opportunities for discussion and the sharing of ideas, as well as hearing from invited speakers. Natural England has asked Danny and Maddy to formalise this facilitation group. 

Danny’s work has been supported by the community and beyond, not only through volunteers but also through crowd-funding. He recognised James Rebank’s support, helping to spread the word through his sizeable social media network. The website allows those who give to see what their money has funded. It provides a pot that can be used to raise matching funds.

Danny is also happy to work with anyone who is heading in a similar direction. For example, with the charity Another Way, he organised the planting, on poor farmland, of 1700 trees, 1300 of which are oak. Together with hazel and shrubs, the trees were planted in a way that should see them grow into a natural oak woodland with all the biodiversity that will bring. 

Another of Danny’s favourite projects – perhaps his number one – is the re-wiggling of a beck in Matterdale. The beck was moved 200 years ago but it wasn’t working for nature or for farming or flood mitigation because it was 5 feet higher than natural floodplain. As a result, after heavy rain, stagnant water would simply lie on the land for up to 3 weeks. With support from the Environment Agency, the beck’s course was cut back to its lowest point, and made more sinuous and meandering.

Re-wiggling a beck in Matterdale

This slowed the flow which, in turn, allowed it to hold smaller gravel suitable for trout and salmon to spawn in. After heavy rain, water spills out onto the flood plain and is stored there, hence slowing the flow downstream. Within a few days, through natural drainage, it is back in grazing condition.

Slide to compare the flood plain just after heavy rain and three days later

Danny believes the Countryside stewardship scheme ‘Making Space for Water’ should be encouraged widely. At a cost of £640 per hectare per year for 20 years, it provides much greater value for money than the installation of expensive flood defence infrastructure downstream. The upland water storage can complement downstream hard engineering works, but is a hard scheme for farmers to enter into as it is a higher tier option only. 

Danny is also a great fan of re-creating wetland ponds and scrapes, so many of which have been lost through drainage or filled in naturally. “Wildlife is crying out for them”, he says. “Once you make them, insects and wading birds come back really fast. The ponds and scrapes team with frogs and these feeds otters. You get herons, curlews, lapwings”. And, generally, wet places on the farm are not productive so there is no loss to the farmer.

Danny also highlighted the importance of joining up the pockets of excellent but fragmented habitat that exist throughout the catchment area. Since WW2 well over 50% of hedges have been lost and with them an important means of connecting habitat pockets. If we re-connect habitats through field-edge hedges we create a motorway running through for insects and other animals. Hedges also reduce floodwater runoff, provide shelter for stock, build soil organic matter and contribute to carbon sequestration. Again, a multiple win solution.

In conclusion Danny emphasized that there is no such thing as cheap food. Food that is cheap to buy from the supermarket has costs for animal welfare, the environment and global warming.  He urged us all to buy local, buy British and eat produce that is in season.

Nature-friendly farming could, he said, be the solution to many of our current issues – we just need to support it.

All photos are by Danny Teasdale

Cumbria’s Fell Ponies

by Jane Firth

As you walk the Ullswater Way, you may be lucky enough to come across some of Cumbria’s fell ponies. They were once widely used as working ponies, taking wool to market, pulling ploughs and working in the mines but there are now only about 6500 fell ponies left worldwide and they are classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.  You may spot them high up on the fells above Ullswater where they are being used for ‘conservation grazing’ because they eat and trample in very different ways from sheep.

The ancestor of the Cumbrian Fell pony (and the Dales pony) is believed to be the now-extinct Galloway. They are thought to have originated on the England/Scotland border before the Romans arrived.

The Vikings used Fell ponies to plough, pull sledges, as pack animals and to ride. The working animals were kept in the villages and the breeding stock lived up on the fells.

From the 11th Century, fell ponies were used to carry fleeces, woollen goods, cheese, meat preserves and metal ores long distances. By the 13th Century this practice had evolved into pack trains, with the front pony wearing bells so that the others could follow it in poor weather. In the winter of 1492-3, when fine wool was one of Britains largest exports, 11 Kendal traders made 14 journeys to Southampton carrying cloth. These pack pony trains continued into the 20th Century. 

Fell Ponies were used as pit ponies where seams were deep enough. They were also used above ground in collieries for moving machinery. They transported copper, iron and lead ores from mines to smelting work in the north west and they carried iron and lead long distances across the north of England to Newcastle and returned with coal.

The ponies also carried dairy products from the farms above the pits into towns. Even after the arrival of canals and railways pack ponies remained essential for reaching remote communities. They were used to deliver mail to rural areas and are still used for carrying grouse panniers and stags down from the moors.

Today, Fell Ponies are being used again as driving ponies. They have a great deal of stamina and are very sure-footed, even on rough or marshy ground. Most recently, they have started to be used to carry footpath repair equipment to remote areas of the Lake District. Fix the Fells, a charity whose rangers and volunteers maintain the Lake District trails, have used them to carry fleeces to a high trail in the Langdales. Here the wool will be placed on a boggy area before trail materials are  laid on top so the trail will float on the bog rather than sinking in to it. See a video about the project here.

Fell ponies are usually a very dark brown or black with only very small amounts of white, such as a star on their forehead. However, every so often you see white (grey) ones. We know that the Cistercian monks at Furness Abbey traditionally rode white ponies. When Furness abbey fell victim to the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, the ponies were released to the wild and merged with the wild Cumbrian Fell ponies. It is thought that this explains the grey fell ponies we see in the Lakes today. There are some on the fells above Aira Force.

Fell ponies are increasingly valued for their role in conservation grazing on the fells. They help increase biodiversity, for example by controlling the spread of gorse and trampling the area to create open ground where seeds can germinate. 

However, there is concern that fell ponies may lose their ability to survive year-round on the fells if future Stewardship Schemes result in them being removed from the fells for a number of months each winter. Foals born and raised on the fells are hardy enough to survive the Lake District winters and, like Herdwick sheep, they become hefted to their home area, learning the terrain from their mothers.  There are worries that these traits will be lost if the ponies have to be brought off the fells each winter.

The Fell Pony has been a part of the Ullswater Valley’s history since Roman times.  They have helped shape our landscape and been an integral part of our cultural heritage, invaluable in the past for transporting both agricultural produce and mined materials. Today their role has changed, being increasingly valued for outdoor sports such as riding and trekking and recognised as important agents in conservation grazing of the fells. 

When you next see a fell pony, why not take a moment to remember their rich cultural heritage and the role they have played in shaping our landscape.

All photographs by Jane Firth

For more information

Fell Pony Heritage Trust www.fpht.co.uk

Rare Breeds Survival Trust https://www.rbst.org.uk/fell-pony 

Pleased to welcome you back

Thanks to everyone who has stayed at home during the last few months. We are pleased that we are now able to welcome visitors back to the Ullswater Valley but to protect our countryside and those who live and work here we need everyone to follow some simple guidelines.

Countryside Code

Respect other people

  • Consider the local community and other people enjoying the outdoors
  • Park carefully – don’t park anywhere outside a car park space.
  • Leave gates and property as you find them
  • Follow paths but give way to others when it’s narrow

Protect the Natural Environment

  • Leave no trace – take all your litter home
  • Don’t have BBQs or fires
  • Dog poo – bag it and bin it
  • Keep dogs under control

Enjoy the Outdoors

  • Plan ahead, check what facilities are open
  • Follow advice and local signs and obey social distancing measures

Useful Links for Planning your Visit

Lake District National Park car park and toilet information: This site lists the main car parks in the valley and whether they have toilet facilities. It tells you how you will need to pay and how busy the car park is likely to be.

Ullswater Steamers: Check here for the Steamer timetable and to book your tickets online.

National Trust: Check here for information on opening times, facilities, car park charges.

Lowther Castle and Gardens: Information about which areas and facilities are open.

Dalemain Mansion and Historic Gardens: Information about which areas and facilities are open.

Stagecoach Bus 508: Timetable for the 508, which goes from Penrith Station to Patterdale.

Arragon Cycles: For information on bike hire.


Summer on the Ullswater Way

As you make your plans why not take a look at Summer on the Ullswater Way – a series of photos, most from previous summers, of the Ullswater Valley during the summer months.

Heritage Trail Leaflet

You may also like to download the Friends of the Ullswater Way Heritage Trail Leaflet which has a map of the Ullswater Way with the heritage installations marked on it.

Heritage Trail Leaflet

200620Leaflet__FinalLeaflet Map page



How the Lake was saved

The Story of Lord Birkett and the Ullswater Preservation Society

by Miles MacInnes

IMG_2806 (2)

“So small, so lovely, so vulnerable”

“Go away. Come again another day if you will…”  With these words, Norman, Lord Birkett QC closed what is arguably one of the finest speeches in modern Parliamentary history.

Manchester’s need for water

But to start at the beginning.  In the early 1960’s Manchester was facing a serious water shortage. Their existing sources, including the reservoirs of Haweswater and Thirlmere, were insufficient to cater for a growing population and increasing industrial demand.

As a result, the Manchester Corporation Waterworks put forward a number of proposals for taking increased supplies from the Lake District, including Ullswater.  In September 1961, with very little notice and limited consultation, the Corporation announced its intentions which involved building a weir on the river Eamont at Pooley Bridge, effectively creating a reservoir and increasing the level of the lake by some 3ft (0.9m).   Extracted water would be pumped to Haweswater through a tunnel driven into the fellside.

News 1

Raising the lake level by three feet may not seem much, but it would have affected roads round the lake and the many boathouses.  It would also have created an unsightly tide mark on the lake shore as water levels fluctuated.

The Corporation promoted a Bill to the 1961/62 Session of Parliament which included these proposals.

The Campaign

There was an immediate and vociferous public outcry – the ‘Ullswater Preservation Society’ (formed in the 1930’s to protect and preserve the Ullswater valley) quickly organized a petition of over 500,000 signatures – a remarkable achievement remembering that there was no social media, internet or emails.


Public meetings were held under the banner of ‘Hands off Ullswater’.  Local politicians, councils, the ‘Cumberland & Westmorland Herald’ and the then Lake District Planning Board all lent their support.

Prominent in the campaign were Willie Vane MP (the first Lord Inglewood), James, 6th Earl of Lonsdale and Bishop Bloomer of Carlisle, all of whom spoke in the subsequent Lords debate. Another objector was Ted Short MP, a respected LabourMP, born in Warcop, who subsequently became Lord Glenamara of Glenridding, where he had a holiday home for many years.

The Bill was debated in the House of Lords on 8 February 1962. Passionate speeches from all sides of the House and most notably by Lord Birkett QC resulted in the approval, by 70 votes to 36, of a motion to exclude Ullswater from the Bill.

William Norman Birkett, 1stBaron Birkett of Ulverston, Kt, PC, QC

190801 Birkett photo 3William Norman Birkett was born in Ulverston on 6thSeptember 1883 and died in London on 10 February 1962 – a sadly relevant date.

Although Ulverston was then in Lancashire, he was certainly a passionate Lakelander who loved and cherished the Lakes -described in his famous speech as -‘so small, so lovely, so vulnerable’.

The son of drapers, with whom he worked initially, he left school at 16, was a Methodist Preacher, President of the Cambridge University Union, Liberal MP, Barrister, QC, and Court of Appeal Judge. He was ennobled in 1958.

He was described as “one of the most prominent liberal barristers in the first half of the 20th century”.

Lord Birkett’s powerful speech, “deeply felt and eloquent”, is rightly considered one of the finest in modern Parliamentary history and undoubtedly saved the lake “for all people for all time”.

He concluded – “Thus far and no farther. Go away. Come again another day, if you will. But in the meantime, do that which ought to have been done before. Produce the hydrological data on which the House can come to a proper decision. Until that is done, you have no right whatever to invade the sanctity of a National Park”.

Tragically, Lord Birkett died of a heart attack a few days later.  He is best remembered for this final triumph which is commemorated by the naming of Birkett Fell overlooking the west shore of the lake, a plaque on the lake shore below Hallin Fell and now the commemoration on the Ullswater Way by the Steamer pier house in Pooley Bridge.  In addition, each summer the Ullswater Yacht Club stages the Birkett Trophy – a ‘must do’ regatta.

050703 Regatta v2

The conclusion

However, that is not the end of the story. Manchester’s reaction was typical of their arrogant attitude – a few days after the debate, an oddly named Councilor Onions commented: – “They can stop gloating down at Ullswater for we need that water and intend to get it”.

In 1965 a revised and much reduced scheme was proposed but again opposed by the Ullswater Preservation Society. However, following a lengthy Public Enquiry in the summer of 1965 and a further debate in the House of Lords in January 1967, these much watered down proposals were finally approved.

Water is now taken from Ullswater by tunnel to Haweswater under strictly controlled conditions which prevent abstraction when water levels fall.  A huge underground pumping station at Parkfoot Holiday Park, between Pooley Bridge and Howtown is largely unnoticed.

MMI June 2020

Based on an Understanding Ullswater Evening Talk


Sheep of the Ullswater Valley

by Jane Firth

Here in the Ullswater Valley we are coming to the end of this year’s lambing season, the shepherd’s busiest time of year. Sounds of lambs and their mothers calling to one another are a constant addition to the bird song and playful young lambs are a joy to watch.

Although the Herdwick is the native breed of the Lake District you might be surprised by how many other varieties you can find in the Ullswater valley. Take a look at the slideshow below and see how many you recognise.


The Herdwick is the native breed of the Lake District, championed by Beatrix Potter. It is thought to have been brought to this country by Norse settlers over 1000 years ago. The name comes from the Old Norse word herdvyck meaning sheep pasture and is recorded in 12th Century documents. It is a minority breed with 95% of the 50,000 sheep living within a 14 mile radius of Coniston. They are very hardy, living their entire lives on the fells with a very strong homing instinct – they never wander far from where they were born. The Cumbrian word for this is “hefted.” For this reason, when a farm is sold, the sheep are sold with the farm.

Herdwick wool naturally sheds water and dries more quickly than many wools – essential for surviving on the fells. However, because it is very course wool and it is not white, it belongs to the lowest price band of the Wool Marketing Board.  As a result, farmers pay more to have their sheep shorn than they receive for the wool, but shearing is still essential for the health of the sheep.

Off the sheep, Herdwick wool is used for Wool by Cumbria Carpets as well as recyclable, naturally fire-retardant insulation by Thermafleece.  More recently, the better quality wool has begun to be made into Herdwick Tweed which is naturally water-repellant. Poorer quality wool is being mixed with bracken harvested from the fells and made into fertiliser by Dalefoot Composts. There is even a company, Solidwool,  combining Herdwick wool with fibreglass to make furniture!

Herdwick lamb and mutton have a very distinct taste and are often on the menu at the Lake District’s top restaurants. They were even eaten at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation banquet in 1953. In 2013, Lakeland Herdwick meat received a Protected Designation of Origin from the European Union (like Champagne and Burgundy).

Herdwick lambs are born in late April or May when the weather in the Lake District is warmer. They are usually born black. When they are a year old (a “hogg), they are dark brown. As they mature, their coats become lighter, ranging from dark grey to almost white. Herdwick ewes are “polled” (have no horns); rams (or “tups) usually have horns.

Other sheep breeds in the Ullswater Valley

The Yorkshire Swaledale is a very common sheep in the Lake District with its distinctive black face, white muzzle and curly horns on both ewes and rams. They are the hardy moorland sheep of the Pennines. Their wool is used for tweeds, rugs and hand knitting. Like the Herdwick of the Cumbrian fells, Swaledales mature slowly but, nevertheless, in recent years their value has increased dramatically due to one key characteristic – they make excellent mothers.


Swaledales may be crossed with Bluefaced Leicesters to create a hybrid known as the North Country Mule. The Mule has the best qualities of both parents. From their Swaledale mothers the Mule lambs get their hardiness, milking and mothering abilities; from their Bluefaced Leicester fathers, they get their increased size and lustrous wool.

The Bluefaced Leicesters have either a blue/grey face or a brown and white one. They also have Roman noses. The North Country Mules have black and white mottled faces and a hint of the Roman nose belonging to the Blue-faced Leicester father. They have high quality wool with a long, crimpey staple (the length of the wool) which is used for carpets and by hand-spinners.

Since Swaledales are such good mothers, older ewes who can no longer raise lambs on the fells are still valuable as experienced breeding ewes on better quality, lowland pasture.

North Country Mules may themselves be crossed with a lowland meat breed such as the Suffolk, with its floppy black ears, or the Dutch Texel, with its distinctive piggy face. The result of this cross is quick-maturing butchers’ lambs.

Farmers in Cumbria who have lowland pasture often keep Suffolks and Texels.

N Country Mule with MulexSuffolk lambs
North Country Mule with Mule x Suffolk lambs

Another sheep breed native to Cumbria is the Rough Fell but it is more commonly seen in South Cumbria and parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. It is very hardy and like the smaller Swaledales and Herdwicks, can endure the hardships of high moorland and fells. It is raised primarily for meat but there is a farmer in the Yorkshire Dales using Herdwick, Swaledale and Rough Fell wool to make Shepherdess tweed. Rough Fell sheep have a broad white patch across their black faces, and both sexes have horns.

Rough Fell sheep1
Rough Fell

Lastly, the Cheviot. This is a white-faced, hornless breed with distinctive pointy ears. It originated in the Cheviot Hills, on the borders of England and Scotland. It was recognised as a hardy sheep as early as 1372, surviving in windswept conditions. They have a strong constitution and good mothering instinct. They are not found high up on the fells in Cumbria but are frequently seen lower down. Their lambs mature faster than the slower growing Herdwick and Swaledale. The wool is used for tweeds, knitting, blankets and rugs.


You will find all these sheep in the Ullswater Valley as well as some rarer breeds. Next time you walk the Ullswater Way see how many you can spot.

Please remember not to disturb or worry sheep. Above all, please keep your dog on a lead, even if they usually come when you call.

Springtime on the Ullswater Way

Thanks to everyone who is staying at home. We look forward to welcoming you back to the Ullswater Valley once the current situation passes.

In the meantime take a look at Springtime on the Ullswater Way – a series of photos from previous years that we hope will lift your spirits, bring back memories and encourage you to look forward to happier times.

Many thanks to our photographers – Anne Clarke, Tim Clarke, Jane Firth, Paul Harris, Gordon Lightburn, Cecilia McCabe and Janet Wedgwood.

The multiple challenges of managing recreation and biodiversity in a working landscape

Understanding Ullswater Evening Talk by Pete Barron, Glenridding Common Land Manager, John Muir Trust

The John Muir Trust was established in 1983 to ‘Protect and enhance wild land for the benefit of both people and wildlife’. In 2017 they were awarded a 3 year lease on Glenridding Common which includes the summit of Helvellyn plus Swirral and Striding Edges.

In his talk, Pete Barron highlighted the achievements of the last two years, describing the range of tasks they have undertaken and the way in which the local community has been involved.

33% of all Commons in England are in Cumbria. A key aspect here is that Glenridding Common is a working landscape: two local farmers graze their sheep on this section of the Fells.

Achievements by JMT in the last two years include:

  • A winter conditions monitoring system from near the summit of Helvellyn that provides hourly temperature data to help winter climbers assess conditions before attempting a climb. The climactic conditions and the craggy terrain of Helvellyn provide a niche habitat for unusual plants, including three extremely rare alpine species (downy willow, alpine saxifrage and alpine meadow grass). These are vulnerable to damage by crampons and ice axes when the ground is not frozen solid.
  • Connecting and engaging with young people and sharing knowledge of wild sites with them.
  • Mitigating the effects of human footfall and especially of large events – e.g. the JMT can warn event organisers where the rare plants are along a planned route for e.g. fell-running
  • Re-seeding the summit of Helvellyn. Twenty six tons of stone (removed from cairns) have been scattered to discourage walkers from straying from the path and the area has been re-seeded with a mix of grasses. The vegetation has already recovered significantly.Work party 8 18 Helvellyn summit

Work Party on Helvellyn Summit © Pete Barron

  • Local residents are supporting the JMT’s programme to increase the population of rare alpine plants on the Helvellyn range. Willow grown from cuttings and a range of alpine plants grown from seed have been cared for by local residents before being planted out on the rock face of the Helvellyn coves by JMT and Natural England. Water avens & sawort

Water avons and sawort © Pete Barron

Other rare species on the site that are being protected and encouraged are:

  • Dwarf Willow and Greenside Juniper which is in danger of disease and needs constant surveillance.
  • The Schelley fish in Red Tarn is an ice age relic and needs protecting. Red Tarn also contains England’s highest (in altitude) population of sticklebacks.
  • The Ring ouzel (mountain blackbird) is a declining species and needs monitoring. There are four pairs here at present. Other rare birdlife includes snow buntings in winter.
  • Mountain Ringlet, the only true Mountain Butterfly, can be seen on the wing on Raise in July


Other priorities and achievements include:

  • The leats (water management system) from the old Glenridding mine are part of industrial archaeology and need maintenance too
  • Education is very important aspect. MICCI (Moorland Indications of Climate Change Initiative)has  supported local schools, including Patterdale school,  helping to collect data such as water levels and peat depth.
  • The John Muir Trust award scheme encourages children and young people especially, to connect with, enjoy and care for the wild spaces https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/john-muir-award
  • Signage on the Fells – JMT joins in the debate about whether more signage of The Fells for walkers would be a good thing or not.

Cecilia McCabe