Herdwick Stones

Banner Image: Yan © Michael Firth

 Grid References: NY 415 218, NY 421 226, NY 424 225

Herdwick Stones

A series of three Herdwick Stones on the section of the Ullswater Way between Watermillock and Gowbarrow celebrate the role that shepherding plays in the cultural heritage of the Ullswater valley and the Lake District in general.

Tyan © Michael Firth
Tethera © Richard Lloyd

The Herdwick

The Herdwick sheep is the native breed of the Lake District, championed by Beatrix Potter. It is thought to have been brought to this country by Norse settlers over 1000 years ago. The name comes from the Old Norse word herdvyck meaning pasture land (as opposed to arable land). It is a minority breed with 95% of the 50,000 sheep living within a 14 mile radius of Coniston. 

Herdwick with lambs © Jane Firth

Herdwicks are very hardy, living their entire lives on the fells. They also have a very strong homing instinct, never wandering far from where they were born. The Cumbrian word for this is “hefted”. For this reason, when a farm is sold, the sheep are sold with the farm.

Herdwick wool is very course. It belongs to the lowest price band of the Wool Marketing Board and is used mainly for carpets and insulation. However, recently, the better quality Herdwick wool has begun to be made into Herdwick tweed. 

Herdwicks in Matterdale © Gordon Lightburn

The innovative local company Dalefoot Composts is using poorer quality wool, mixed with bracken harvested from the fells, to create a range of peat-free composts. 

Herdwick lamb and mutton has a very distinct taste. It was eaten at Queen Elizabeth II's 1953 coronation banquet. In 2013, Lakeland Herdwick meat received a Protected Designation of Origin from the European Union (like Champagne and Burgundy).

Herdwick lambs are born in late April or May when the weather in the Lake District is warmer. They are born black. When they are a year old (a “hogg”), they are dark brown. As they mature, their coats become lighter, ranging from dark grey to almost white. Herdwick ewes are "polled" (have no horns) but tups (rams) usually have horns

Herdwick tup (ram) © Jane Firth

Counting sheep

Sixty per cent of farmland in Cumbria is common land. To prevent overgrazing, access to this common grazing land is tightly regulated. Accurate head counts have been necessary since medieval times and are still required for access to upland subsidies. The sheep are gathered from the fells four times a year providing an opportunity for farmers to count them, return strays and assess their health.

There are sheep-counting systems all over the British Isles which are Celtic in origin but all slightly different from one another. Often pairs of adjacent numbers (1 and 2, 3 and 4 etc) resemble each other and rhyme. In this part of Cumbria, yan and tyan are 1 and 2; tethera and methera are 3 and 4.  The counting system only goes to 20 but shepherds can count in multiples of 20 by shifting a stone from one pocket to another each time they start a new set. If they have moved 10 stones, they have counted 200 sheep.

Herdwick sheep © Gordon Lightburn

Kids' Fun Fact

Learn to count like a Cumbrian shepherd:

1 yan  2 tyan  3 tethera  4 methera  5 pimp 

6 sethera  7 lethera  8 hovera  9 dovera  10 dick

 11 yan-a-dick  12 tyan-a-dick 13 tethera-dick 14 methera-dick  15 bumfit 

16 yan-a-bumfit 17 tyan-a-bumfit 18 tethera-bumfit  19 methera bumfit  20 giggot

Creating and Installing the Herdwick Stones

The Herdwick Stones were created by letter carver Charlotte Ruse. Charlotte lives and works in London but frequently visits Ullswater where her mother lives.

Charlotte worked closely with landowners Richard and Anne Lloyd to select where the Herdwick Stones would be mounted.

Charlotte with Tyan © Richard Lloyd
Installing Tethera © Michael Firth

By Jane Firth, resident of Watermillock

With Thanks to our funders and supporters

NAV4 Adventure

The Eden Tourism Team

The Lake District Communities Fund

The Ullswater Preservation Society

Donations from the general public and supporters

Richard and Anne Lloyd

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