Sheep of Cumbria

Blawith Common Dow Crag and sheep By Tony RichardsIf any animal could be identified specifically with Cumbria, it would be the Herdwick sheep, natives to the area. The name Herdwick, meaning “sheep pasture”, has existed since the 12th century. Found mostly in the central and western Lake District, they thrive on the thin soil of the fells and are able to take the rough weather in stride. They are independent, free of humans needing to feed and protect them during the long, harsh winters.

Herdwick Sheep By Ann BowkerHardy and bred to the hills, they know their own territory (called “heafed” to the fell) and stick within it, never mixing and mingling with the herds of other fell farms. Because of this inbred behavior, they are considered difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

Chapel Stile sheep By Tony RichardsThe sheep have developed in their genes a built-in resistance to fell diseases and parasites. For 400 years from the 16th through the 19th centuries, sheep were treated (salved) with a hot mix of tar and rancid butter to keep parasites such as ticks and lice from them. This time consuming and expensive method was eventually replaced with sheep dips.

Fell sheep Lingmoor Fell By Tony RichardsApril and May are lambing season while July through August is shearing time. September sees the new lambs weaned, and October is selling time. In late November the sheep live in the bottomlands of the valleys, moving to the fells around the end of December. Some breeding ewes and the first year lambs (gimmer) spend winter on lowland farms.

Herdwicks are identified by their white faces and lack of horns (except the rams). Lambs are born black but turn grey with age. Their coarse, tough fleeces are used to make long-lasting carpets. Their meat is said to have a distinctive taste.

Herdwick and Swaledale Sheep at High Yewdale By Tony RichardsBeatrix Potter, well known author and illustrator, championed the Herdwick sheep and served a term as chairman of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association. She purchased Troutbeck Farm, near Kirkstone Pass, to rear her sheep and left them to the National Trust.

The Rough Fell is another type of sheep found on Cumbria's fells and moorlands. These sheep, like the Herdwick, are a robust breed and are especially popular in the southern part of Cumbria around Kendal, Tebay, and Sedbergh.

Herdwick ewe and lamb By Ann BowkerAble to feed on the heather and mountain grass, the Rough Fell requires little maintenance. Rough Fell sheep have large bodies and thick white fleece. The rams have a black and white face and large horns. The fleece is exported to Europe for use in mattresses. In England it is used in carpeting.

The Swaledale, also found in Cumbria, is a sturdy sheep with a black head and white foreface and horns. Other sheep found in the area can be crossbreeds of Herdwicks with Texels, Suffolks, Leicesters, and Charollais.

Herdwick sheep By Tony RichardsWool was an important economic crop for all of England, as testified by the many wool churches, town mottoes, and coats of arms throughout the country. Kendal's motto is “Pannus mihi panem” translated is “Wool means bread for me”.

The rugged sheep of the Cumbrian fells are an integral part of the landscape. From medieval times to the present they represent the character of the Lake District.

Many agricultural shows and sheep dog trials are held in Cumbrian towns. Check with local Tourist Information Centres for dates, times, and places.

Countryside Museum at Dalemain House
Tel: 017684 86450
Fax: 017684 86223
See web site for opening times.

Photos courtesy of Tony Richard and Ann Bowker

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