Feeling Sheepish?

Spring has sprung - lambs bounce into Leicestershire!

Today I am bouncing - I’ve just seen my first lambs of the season! What is it about these tiny bundles of fluff that makes me leap with joy? Is it their cute little faces peering out from underneath mum their little tails a-quivering as they grapple with feeding for the first time, or is it simply the timely reminder that spring is on its way bringing new life with it? These bleating cotton wool balls certainly have plenty of life in them frolicking about like they have springs in their feet!

Seeing my first lambs of the year made me ponder a little about sheep…

Faithful Fellside Friends

Over more than 30 years of mountain and countryside walking sheep and their lambs have become a very familiar sight to me. My faithful friends are always there whatever the weather.

Transforming forests to fabulous fells.

Sheep have played an important role in the life of Britain since Neolithic times (c. 4000 – 2500 BCE) when the country was mostly covered by forest. Initially introduced to the uplands, sheep have changed the landscape substantially to become the rugged open hillsides we now enjoy.

The main areas of sheep rearing today are in the uplands such as the Pennines, North York Moors and the Lake District where more than 40% of our breeding flock are based. It is no coincidence that these areas are National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The open grazed landscapes with associated features (e.g. field walls and barns) are highly valued and are protected. If sheep grazing ceased the forest would certainly return.

Wot - no sheep?!

So, before the Neolithic there were no sheep in Britain. Unimaginable! Today there are around 23 million and sometimes you're tripping over them in the countryside! All British breeds are descended from a single type which was brought over by Neolithic farmers and its only subsequent breeding that has produced the multitude of weird and wonderful looking animals we see today. The National Sheep Association website has more detail on many of these: http://www.nationalsheep.org.uk/know-your-sheep/. There are some wonderful names such as the ‘Lonk’, the ‘Dorper’, the ‘Beltex’ and the ‘Zwartbles’, and of course the iconic ‘Swaledale’ of the Yorkshire Dales. But my favourite has to be ‘Herdy’ – the cute and cuddly looking Herdwick native to the Lake District.

 ‘Herdy’ – The Guardian of the Fells

Having spent a lot of time among the Lake District fells I have come to know and love ‘Herdy’. Native to the central and western fells which rise to over 3000ft, Herdwicks are widely considered to be the hardiest of all British hill sheep, thriving in the strong westerly rain bearing winds that often batter the hillsides. I’ve certainly met some in ‘interesting conditions’. They’re still managed in the traditional way which includes ‘hefting’. The ‘heft’ is an area of land occupied by a given flock and lambs which graze with their mothers learn where they belong. Amazingly, sheep know their heft even if it doesn’t have physical boundaries and they don’t stray beyond it. This is crucial to the hill farmers because if the sheep wander only slightly into another valley it can mean a drive of many miles to go and collect the stray!

According to the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association (www.herdwick-sheep.com) these hardy creatures "are the foundation of fell farming and without hill farmers the cultural landscape is a body without a beating heart". When foot and mouth disease swept across their Cumbrian homeland in 2001 around 1/3 of the population was lost and there were real worries about what would happen to the breed:

“Our farm in the fells was one of the last farms towards the mountains culled during the epidemic. Had it spread west by a few more fields, the disease would have got onto the unfenced Lakeland fells where it would have decimated the ancient hefted fell flocks on the commons. Ninety-five percent of the Herdwick sheep in the world exist within twenty miles of Coniston, and were at grave risk of being wiped out”.

(From ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ by James Rebanks).

How you can help Herdy

Being out and about in the Lake District has brought me so much joy over the years and I can’t comprehend the National Park without Herdy! It’s such a comfort spotting those little grey faces peering out of the mist, or hearing a plaintive bleat in the distance. You are never alone on a Lake District fell. So I am hugely grateful for all that is happening to protect and promote the Herdwick breed. There are lots of ways you can help too, from buying ‘Herdy’ products (e.g. http://www.herdy.co.uk/) to staying on a working Herdwick farm (e.g. http://www.herdwick-sheep.com/accommodation-categories/bed-and-breakfasts/).

In the meantime, perhaps I’ll bump into you with my little sheep identification book. Go on, get spotting those lambs…

Susan xx