Farming through the Ages

Banner image © Anne Clarke
Herdwick tup © Jane Firth

Farming has shaped the Ullswater Valley for 5000 years


Farming has shaped the Ullswater Valley since Neolithic times. Trees were first cut to create clearings for livestock to graze and later for the growing of crops.

The Lake District’s famous Herdwick sheep did not arrive until the 10th century, brought by Norse settlers arriving via Ireland. The Norse cleared woodlands on the higher slopes to create pastures for summer grazing. Sheep and shepherding have been a central part of valley life ever since.

With the Norman conquest came a feudal system. The Lord of the Manor granted tenant farmers rights to graze livestock, collect peat (for fuel), coppice trees and collect wood. Ullswater was part of the vast estates of William de Lancaster, Baron of Kendal, who made Hartsop Hall his home.

Glencoyne Farm © Anne Clarke

The Kendal wool trade increased demand


In these times the valley would have been largely self-sufficient. There were fish in the lakes and rivers, cows, pigs, hens, geese, forest fruits and herbs as well as small crops of barley, oats and rye. Sheep were increasingly profitable for meat, milk, cheese, skins and fleece and would have been grazed on commonland. Medieval farming practices are still evident from the pattern of drystone walls in valleys such as Grisedale.

By the 16th and 17th centuries farming was increasingly dominated by sheep to supply the Kendal wool trade. A class of more prosperous Yeoman Farmers developed and many farmhouses were rebuilt. Glencoyne is an example.

In the 19th century the Enclosure Acts enabled Yeoman/Statesman farmers to consolidate their properties and improve the land.

Haymaking in Watermillock © Gordon Lightburn

Change came fast with mechanisation and fertilisers


Farming practices changed little in the early 20th century, although more food crops were grown during the wars. However, change came quickly once mechanisation and the use of fertilisers took off. Machines replaced agricultural labourers and many farms were lost.

Sheep numbers increased thanks to imported feed and the Common Agricultural Policy which initially provided subsidies per head of sheep. Farming became more productive, but at a price.

Looking to the Future


Today sheep numbers are lower and a greater variety of breeds are used. Cattle are coming back and Regenerative Farming, Nature-friendly Farming and Hay Meadows are on the increase.

Nevertheless the rhythm of the Shepherd’s Year remains more or less the same.


by Anne Clarke

Other Topics you may find of interest

James Rebanks

Countrystride Podcast in which James Rebanks talks to Mark Richards about his latest book, English Pastoral


Danny Teasdale

Director, Ullswater Catchment Management talks about nature-friendly farming and the changes in farming practice he has seen during his lifetime



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