Herdwick sheep and the high fells of Cumbria are closely linked not only as a source of high quality meat but in their role in tourism and maintaining the upland landscape.
Last September a £50,000 year-long project was launched promoting the Herdwick breed. Neil Ryder reports.
Herdwick sheep have proved their worth on a Lake District farm with just 45 hectares (111 acres) of ‘better’ Severely Disadvantaged Area (SDA) land, plus moorland and common grazings running up to more than 850 metres (2,788 feet) above sea level.
At the age of 41, Peter Bland took over the tenancy of Knott Houses in 2002 after working with his father whose farm adjoins the unit. The farm is owned by a private landlord, with the tenancy including a commitment to maintain a stock Herdwick flock which is passed on with the tenancy.
Up until then the landowner had kept the farm in-hand and run by a manager. The farm was under the Lake District Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme and the in-bye land has just been entered under an Uplands Entry Level Stewardship agreement.
Knott Houses covers 180ha (445 acres), of which 45ha (112 acres) is classified as SDA land and the remainder above the moorland line. Most of the SDA land is good quality permanent grassland and accessible by tractor apart from a few slopes.
In addition to the farm itself, there are grazing rights on 800ha (1,997 acres) of Grasmere Common. This, and the farm’s own moorland grazing, is all rough grass and rocky outcrops.
Peter now farms with his partner Joanne and 18-year-old son Robert, who is undertaking a farm apprenticeship scheme run by Newton Rigg College, spending one day a week at the college.
Stock are 1,000 Herdwick ewes plus hoggs and shearlings, plus a 40-strong herd of British Blue cross suckler cows mostly bred out of dairy cows and put to Limousin bulls. The herd is March-calving, with calves sold in January to March the following year.
Peter says: “We run a traditional type sheep system and are very well stocked as we do not tup our shearlings. All our breeding sheep are Herdwicks and are bred pure apart from about 100 of our bottom sheep which are bred to the Texel.
“When we came here, we brought pure Herdwicks plus some Swaledale cross Herdwicks. At the time, the Swaledale was making better prices than the Herdwick for wether lambs, and also needed a higher level of care. Really we are Herdwick farmers and just felt the Swaledales needed too much looking after.
“At the time we were working with a dealer who was supplying a local business specialising in local meats. Unfortunately the business went bust, but the dealer made sure producers like ourselves were paid by his own business so we did not lose any money.
“Now we sell our lambs mostly through Mitchells at Cockermouth Mart, which runs a Herdwick marketing scheme with all our lambs being sold deadweight to Scotbeef. Some may also go through Harrison and Hetherington at Carlisle.
“We put the tups in on November 22, or as near to as possible, with lambs due from April 18 the following year. All ewes are pregnancy scanned and we normally expect 120-122 per cent lambs based on ewes put to the ram. This is partly because we tend to have very few geld ewes.
“Normally we have about 25 per cent of the ewes with twins, which is really higher than we would like. It is also a little higher than most Herdwick flocks round here. We keep the ewes with twins on the lower land and those with singles go straight over the fell gate on to the moorland.
“In many ways two lambs are better than one, but there are also additional feed costs and work. On a farm like this we really want ewes with strong singles which go straight to the fell and, unless there are any problems, we will not see them again until clipping.
“Conditions were very hard up on the fell in early April last year, with the tarn up on the moor frozen solid, but once we were through that the ewes and lambs did well making it one of our best years. This spring has been much harder for the sheep with three very wet months recording a total of 57 inches of rain in Grasmere village.”
Peter starts selling lambs straight off the fell in November. These, he says, are light lambs, which in theory are store lambs but in fact sell well going to butchers.
Last November, the first batch made £50 a head and the following week the next batch went at £60 per head so he decided to keep selling and about one-third of his lambs sold this way in November and early December.
He says: “Feeding lambs with bought-in concentrates is expensive and can easily reach £20-£30 per head if fed inside, so finishing and selling off grass makes it a much better option.
“On average our lambs give carcases of 18.5kg and kill out at 47 per cent. Prices work out at about £80 per head.”
Last May, the Herdwick breed was granted a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, following an application from the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.
It was 12 months in the making and meat from the estimated 50,000 animals can now only be classed as Lakeland Herdwick if they are born, reared and killed at one of three registered abattoirs in Cumbria.
Peter says: “Gaining PDO status for the Herdwick does help the market, but only applies if the lambs are slaughtered within Cumbria which usually means Aireys at Newby Bridge which specialises in traditional breeds. PDO lambs have been making £4.75 per kg, 35p per kg more than non-PDO lambs but open market prices have matched or been above this.
“The PDO market will always be a limited market and will probably be most help when the open market is down a little. The Herdwick project may also help us a little, but it is a case of waiting and seeing how it will benefit producers like ourselves. Certainly all help in marketing our sheep is always welcome.
“One thing we do know is Herdwick lamb and mutton are fantastic to eat as we eat our own sheep. This is always mutton as we usually have our older sheep.”
Turning to the broader picture, Peter says: “There are real problems with the way farm and environmental schemes operate, especially for young people.
“We have looked at the Higher Level Stewardship environmental scheme, but while we would get additional payments it would mean having to severely cut back sheep numbers to the extent where we could not afford to keep Robert, who is just 18, on the farm.
“The increased moorland payments are welcome, but really they will be of most benefit to farmers with relatively large acreages.
“It is also hard to see landowners, often elderly, keeping just a few stock and collecting the Single Farm Payment when there are young farmers, just getting going, who are unable to afford to buy entitlements and therefore unable to draw it.”
Sales of Herdwick sheepmeat are receiving a boost with a marketing project bringing together Taste Cumbria and the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association with financial backing from the Prince’s Countryside Fund.
The one-year project, supported by a £50,000 grant, got underway in September last year. It is supporting a series of events to promote Herdwick sheep and to foster links between farmers, abattoirs, restaurants and retailers.
In addition the project is looking to capitalise on the Herdwick’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status granted last year.
Six Cumbrian MPs – Tim Farron, Jamie Reed, Rory Stewart, Tony Cunningham, John Woodcock and John Stephenson – have pledged their support for the project. They emphasise the importance of the project in raising the profile of Cumbrian farmers with Herdwick flocks and their role in maintaining Cumbrian landscapes.
Mary Houston, Taste Cumbria manager, says: “Herdwicks are not just a tourism gimmick, they are a livelihood for many dedicated farmers in Cumbria. This industry needs to be supported and celebrated.
“We are aiming for a mix of high-end and high-profile catering contracts and retail outlets which will ensure the special quality of the meat really shines. Establishing quality outlets which care about provenance and quality are key. It is our hope to establish long-term quality contracts which will flourish and grow over time.”
Victoria Elms, director of The Prince’s Countryside Fund, says: “Life in hill farming can be tough. It requires stamina, dedication, long hours and a love of what you are doing. Herdwick farming is integral to the Cumbrian landscape and we are pleased to be able to help build awareness of this product and support those at the core of Herdwick farming. With thousands of farmers leaving the industry each year, initiatives such as Taste Cumbria’s Herdwick project are essential.”