No visit to the Lake District would be complete without catching sight of the traditional Herdwick Sheep. These sheep have lovely smiley faces and are the hardiest of all Britain’s breeds of hill sheep, living on the highest of England’s Mountains. Even today, they are managed in the traditional way, on the Lake District fells that have been their home for generations. Read on to find out more about these much-loved Lake District characters.
The history of Herdwick sheep
The word “Herdvyck", meaning sheep pasture, is recorded in documents going back to the 12th century – a sign that this hardy breed has been around for a very long time. The most common theory as to how the breed came about is that their ancestors were introduced to England during the 10th and 11th centuries by Viking invaders who settled in the west of England.
Herdwick flocks and how they graze
Herdwick sheep flocks were historically managed in such a way that the sheep know which bit of the fell they are supposed to graze, and unlike most other sheep breeds they keep to this ‘heaf’. Each generation of sheep pass this knowledge of belonging on to their lambs.
Because these unique sheep have this built-in homing instinct, it would be disastrous if the flock were sold when a farmer retired. Lake District farms are therefore bought or rented with the existing flocks of sheep in place (‘landlord flocks’). Incoming farmers inherit the flocks that belong to the land.
Today there are around 50,000 Herdwicks, with 95% of these living within 15 miles of Coniston. They can be seen grazing on the Coniston Fells, the Buttermere Fells, the Duddon Valley, Borrowdale, Wasdale and up to the Scafells.
Each farm has ways of identifying its sheep, so should any stray, or be mistakenly gathered to a neighbouring farmstead they can be identified and returned to the rightful owner. There are two traditional kinds of identification: ‘lug marks’ are small notches in the sheep’s ear in a set pattern that identifies the sheep’s owner; ‘smit marks’ are coloured marks on the sheep’s fleece.
In the spring pregnant ewes are brought down to the in-bye land (the bottom of the valley), where they have their lambs in the lush, green fields. Herdwick lambs are born black and as they grow, their fleece lightens to a dark brown. After the young, dark brown sheep have been sheared, they turn a steel grey colour, which continues to lighten with age. Because of their meagre diet, Herdwick sheep usually give birth to only one lamb, although they have been known occasionally to have twins.
When the lambs are strong enough, the sheep are returned back to the open fells to enjoy the warmer weather. Mothers then teach their lambs ‘heafing’ behaviour, so they learn which area of the mountain to call home.
A symbol of the Lake District
Today, this small breed of sheep typifies the Lake District, as they are seen grazing on much of its landscapes. While visiting the Lake District, a day out to the fells to meet these charming characters is a must! Close to the Coniston Fells, you’ll find that the famous Herdwick sheep are just a short walk or drive away from our Hawkshead cottages – take a look at our collection to find somewhere to stay while you visit.