Lakeland's famous Herdwick sheep

Ruth 09 January 2020

No visit to the Lake District would be complete without catching sight of the traditional Herdwick Sheep.

The Herdwick sheep are native to the Lake District and have lovely smiley faces. They 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.

You can encounter these friendly and hardy characters on the high fells of the region as well as in the valley bottoms. Herdwick sheep have a reputation for being able to survive and thrive on the most difficult terrain thanks to their long thick legs! For those of you who are fans of the famous children's author Beatrix Potter, you will be interested to discover that she bred these sheep through her love for them and even showed them in breeding competitions. You can read all about her in our guide to Beatrix Potter.

Read on and discover 5 fun facts about these much-loved Lake District characters...

5 facts about Herdwick sheep in the Lake District

The Herdwick sheep has been around since the 12th century

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.

For generations the sheep have known which part of the fells to 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 passes 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

The sheep 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.

Herdwick lambs are born fully black. When they mature their fleece lightens with them

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.

The typical weight of a Herdwick fleece is 1.5–2kg

The wool of a Herdwick sheep's fleece is coarse, with a fibre length, or staple of 15-20cm. The main use of the wool has been carpets and tweeds but more recently it has been used in more innovative ways such as in felting, loft insulation and compost! The Wool Clip in Caldbeck sells fleeces, yarns and scarves which are all sourced from the local Herdwick flocks; these make for lovely gifts or a treat for yourself.

These lovely sheep are a strong symbol of the Lake District today and many visitors make a special effort to see them whilst staying in the area. Close to the Coniston Fells, you’ll find  the famous Herdwick sheep happily eating and adventuring as the day passes. We have lots of lovely holiday cottages in and around Coniston which can be a lovely base for your sheepy adventure.

We can offer wonderful self-catering accommodation all over the Lake District too, ranging from family-friendly holiday homes and larger houses for groups, to romantic cottages for two and luxury cottages with hot tubs. View our collection today.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.

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