British Sheep Breeds

The Herdwick

The Herdwick is one of Great Britains' indigenous sheep breeds. The Herdwick is kept in the central and western dales of the high Lake District where the mountains rise to over 3,000 feet. It is a very hardy and tough breed. The sheep are hefted or 'heafed' meaning they instinctively keep to their own area of the country. Mothers stay in an area and their progeny learn the heaf from them. So there is no need for fences and when sheep are turned loose after being mustered for shearing or dipping, they immediately return to their own patch on the common land. The Herdwick is a coarse-woolled hill breed.

Herdwick Sheep against a wallCredit:

'Herdwyck' actually means 'sheep pasture' and the word can be found documented as far back as the 12th century. Some say the Herdwick came to England via shipwrecks of the Spanish Armada.

In upper Eskdale, flocks were once kept by the monks at Furness Abbey. Beatrix Potter stipulated in her will that Herdwick sheep must be kept on those farms that she left to the National Trust.

The Herdwick, along with other breeds, had a hard time in 2002 when entire flocks were eradicated during the Foot and Mouth crisis. Because the animals heaf, it has not been easy to replace stock.

The Herdwick rams have smooth, low-set horns which are wide apart and round. The horns rise out of the bak of the head. The ewes are polled. The face is broad and full between the eyes which are prominent and bright. The face and top of the head is covered with strong, bristly hair. The face is of medium length and grey with a Roman nose and white ears of medium length. The face and legs should not have any black spots. Any black, brown or yellow colouring is frowned on.

Herdwick SheepCredit:

To survive on the rough pasture and in the harsh conditions, the sheep must have good mouths and strong teeth. For the same reasons, the legs should be straight and clean. The legs do not have a wool covering but bristly hair.

Lambs are born almost black and become lighter as they grow. The neck is of medium length. The ribs are well sprung and the back flat and broad. There is plenty of meat on the hindquarters right down to the hock. There should be plenty of wool on the belly. The fleece is virtually two-in-one with an undercoat of fine wool and a dark, coarse outer fleece which is heavy and dense. There is a strong, coarse mane round the neck and top of the shoulder. The wool is of little commercial value or use. However some is used for carpet making and for speciality fabrics. What the wool lacks in quality is compensated for by the meat produced by the Herdwick. It is a very good flavour and is of high quality.

Traditionally rams are released to run with the ewes in the valley land in late November. A month later the ewes are released into the fells and will generally fend for themselves until April when they will be brought into the valley pastures until they lamb. Those with single lambs go back to the fell but those with multiple lambs remain in the valley until July/August when all the sheep are shorn. Lambs are weaned in September and wether lambs are sold in October or kept on to be fattened and sold later. In November gimmer or ewe lambs are sent to winter on lowland farms and will come back to the fells in spring when the farmers' year begins all over again.

The native breeds of sheep play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of life in their particular regions.