The underdog of the sheep world is benefiting from a renewed boost in popularity. Emily Scaife reports.
Rarely does a particular livestock breed captures the public’s attention. Few rise about the ranks of cows and sheep – it’s to do so is a pinnacle of popularity which only a precious few reach.
But the Herdwick has got there.
It wasn’t always the case – a few years ago their fleeces were only fetching 6-10 pence each and farmers were resorting to burning them as the market had all but disappeared.
The Herdwick sheep’s stock plummeted, its key role in maintaining the Lake District overlooked and forgotten.
Today couldn’t paint a more different picture. There’s no denying the Herdwick is having a moment. You only have to drive round the 555 bus route between Rydal, Grasmere, Ambleside, Keswick and Windermere right now to appreciate the extent to which their fame has soared.
A flock of life-sized decorated Herdwicks have been placed in key points and unexpected places to celebrate the breed and raise money for the Lake District Calvert Trust.
Justin Farnan, one of the coordinators of the project, hopes the 60 ewes and 48 lambs will encourage people to visit the Lakes and boost tourism following the reopening of the A591 after the devastating December floods.
He says: “The Go Herdwick trail has now been running since the end of March and we have been overwhelmed by the positive reaction from visitors and locals alike, with the project having received interest from all over the UK and places as far afield as the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Uganda.”
The Lake District Calvert Trust is a residential outdoors centre providing outdoor adventure holidays for people with disabilities.
The money raised will help fund the £1.3 million redevelopment of Old Windebrowe, the charity’s grade 2 listed farmhouse which was once home to William Wordsworth.
This isn’t the only literary connection the Herdwick enjoys.
Beatrix Potter was a farmer and vital protector of the area and, as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the writer’s birth, it has given the Herdwicks another stint in the spotlight.
Potter bred them on her farms in the Lake District at a time when they were a threatened native breed.
Her knowledge and passion for sheep was held in such esteem locally that she became the first elected female President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.
She ensured the breed’s survival and left 15 farms to the National Trust when she died, covering an area of more than 1,620 hectares (4,000 acres). According to her wishes, all continue to graze Herdwick flocks today.
The association also reaches its centenary this year.
The group has worked closely alongside Herdy, a brand which designs gifts, homeware and accessories inspired by Herdwick Sheep, for many years.
The company also created the ‘Herdy Fund’, which supports sustainable rural communities and upland fell farming projects, a number of which have supported local producers and boosted the breed’s profile.
This includes the introduction of the Herdwick Brand Marque and the association was also instrumental in securing Product of Designated Origin status for ‘Lakeland Herdwick’.
Amanda Carson, secretary of the association, says: “This collaboration has realised real benefits to hill farmers.
“Our mission is the encouragement of breeding Herdwick sheep and the maintenance of the purity, constitution and character of the breed for survival in the high fells.
“Our members sustain and uphold those traditions, and help make this the most loved of English landscapes, one which is currently being considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Herdy support our aim and want to work with us to help make it happen.
“We look forward to future collaborations, which will help farmers find new markets for their products, especially working with young farmers who will ensure the survival of the iconic Lakeland Herdwick sheep.”
Marking the association’s centenary year and to celebrate Beatrix Potter’s work, Herdy has created ‘Chops Herdy’, a collectible figure demonstrating the different cuts of meat with a butcher’s diagram.
Herdy co-founder Diane Hannah says: “Fell-farming is one of the most sustainable agricultural systems in the UK today, where the needs of the wild habitat and those of animal are balanced and nurtured.
“If you eat meat – and indeed, lamb – truly the best product you can buy must be Lakeland Herdwick. It is naturally reared, almost semi-wild, living out on the fell, maturing slowly on the heather, bilberries and grasses of the Lake District Fells.”
While there is no denying the meat’s profile has been raised, the wool has also received a welcome boost, with new companies choosing to make use of the material which had practically been disregarded as a waste product.
Hannah and Justin Floyd wanted to create something which would support their hometown of Buckfastleigh, Devon – another area hard hit by the decline of the woollen industry.
Once a thriving hub, the town had grown quiet as the manufacturing industry slowly closed down.
Hannah says: “We had an idea. If we could find a new and modern way of working with wool then perhaps we could bring some of this industry back.”
They opted to use Herdwick wool after being approached by the British Wool Marketing Board, combining it with bio-resin to create a fibreglass-type material. They then used this to create a range of furniture, which celebrates British industry and home-grown materials.
“This wool is something special but along the way something has gone wrong and its perceived value has been lost,” Hannah says. “It is currently one of the lowest value wools in the UK.
“We see a beauty in this natural material and want to help its value increase. The Herdwick flock and their shepherds are custodians of their wild landscape. We want to help them stay this way.”
The Herdwick Project, set up by Cumbria Tourism, is determined to raise the profile of Herdwick meat and give farmers a better return for their produce.
Speaking before The Prince of Wales at an event to boost the profile of Herdwicks, hill farmer and Herdwick Breeders’ Association vice-chairman Anthony Hartley said preserving the breed is essential.
“There is no meat which has a better provenance than Lakeland Herdwick,” he said.
“Farmers need to take responsibility to market their produce more effectively and work together to collectively command a better price for the breed.
“Herdwick farming is key to preserving the landscape and character of the Lake District, from preserving the distinctive dry stone walls to managing grazing.
It is heart-breaking many upland famers earn as little as £6,000 or less, which is less than half the minimum wage. Awareness of the importance of upland farming is key to our survival.”