by Emma Bray

Banner Image © Gordon Lightburn

Herdwicks are the hardy native breed of sheep which are hefted to the Cumbrian fells. Legend and research links them to Norse settlers.

Legend tells that the Herdwick sheep which are found in the Lake District fells descend from a flock which swam ashore from a shipwrecked Scandinavian boat in around the 10th century. The story may be far-fetched, but there is evidence which links the native breed and the Norse settlers who made Cumbria their home from 900 AD. Research by The Sheep Trust in 2014 found primitive genes in the Herdwicks which are not present in other UK mainland sheep. It suggests that they may originate from an ancestor shared with breeds living in Sweden, Finland, Orkney and Iceland. Further, a rare genetic link was found with a population on the island of Texel in the Wadden Sea off the coast of the Netherlands.

Herdwicks in Matterdale © Gordon Lightburn

The word Herdwick also has Norse origins, coming form the word herdvyck which means sheep farm. The term was used to describe sheep farms up until the 17th century, but by the 18th century, it was used to denote the actual breed.

The practice of lug marking, whereby a distinctive shape was clipped into a sheep’s ear to identify its owner, is also a Scandinavian tradition. The lug marks are published periodically in The Shepherd’s Guide, the brainchild of Joseph Wilkinson a farmer from Martindale who produced the first edition in 1817.

Herdwick ewe and lambs © Jane Firth

Whatever the true origin of the Herdwick, it is well suited to survive the elements that exist on the Cumbrian fells in winter. Its fleece has two layers – a woolly inner layer and a hairy outer coat with hollow fibres that repel water so that the fleece dries out quickly. The sheep can survive in snow drifts by drinking melted snow. The breed has a distinctive white face and only the male tups have horns. The lambs are born with a black fleece, but this fades in the sun, so that one year old hoggs have a brown coat and the colour fades to grey or white with age.

Herdwicks in Matterdale © Gordon Lightburn

The Herdwick’s hefting instinct has helped shape the system of common fell grazing in the Lake District. The sheep learns from its mother to stay near its heft or area of fell so that it does not wander far from its home on unenclosed land. The instinct is passed down through generations and its importance means that some female sheep are sold with a farm when it changes hands.

The Herdwick Sheep Breeds Association was founded in 1916 to improve the breed standard. They created a flock book in which rams and flocks could be registered. Mrs Heelis (Beatrix Potter) was passionate about the breed and was President-elect of the Association, but died before taking office in 1944. She bequeathed her 21 farms to the National Trust in order to protect the way of life of the Cumbrian hill farmer.

by Emma Bray

Herdwick © Janet Wedgwood

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