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.
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.
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.