On most of our Lake District tours you will spot curious snow white faced sheep grazing on the fells or farmland, not just any sheep the Herdwick Sheep. They have a long history with the Lake District National Park and have deep roots in the area.
A brief introduction to Herdwick Sheep
The word Herdwick comes from ‘Herdwyck’ which means sheep pasture and was recorded in documents dating to the 12th century. It was believed the Vikings brought the Herdwicks to the area and like their Viking counterparts are very well adapted to coping with the Lake District conditions including wet weather and the cold. Herdwick sheep are said to be the hardiest breed in Britain thriving on the high fells.
Herdwick sheep have been in and around the Lake District for centuries. If you thought the Herdwick Sheep was just a smiley face then think again, farmers looking to farm in the Lake District are faced with practical challenges including the Lake District’s weather, the expansive area and the better quality grazing land in the valley bottoms. The way Herdwick’s are farmed has been development over thousands of years, their hardiness and capability to graze across the park is critical to the maintenance and sustainability of the Lake District landscape today.
Beatrix Potter and Herdwick sheep
Having visited the Lake District on childhood holidays, staying at locations such as Wray Castle, Beatrix Potter had a love for the area from a young age. Beatrix Potter purchased Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey with the proceeds of her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. From there onwards she continued to purchase land and farms across the Lake District National Park including Hill Top Farm, Monk Coniston Estate, Tarn Hows, Yew Tree Farm among many more. In 1923 Beatrix Potter bought Troutbeck Farm after it was at risk of being sold for development, she kept it as a working farm and bred Herdwick sheep there.
Beatrix Potter was a respected farmer of Herdwick sheep, winning a number of local agricultural awards and prizes and later becoming the President of Keswick show. She was committed to conserving the breed, having her own flock of Herdwick’s. It was always Beatrix Potter’s vision to maintain the long-term preservation of the Lake District and the breed Herdwick sheep, purchasing and managing farms; she worked closely with the National Trust. By purchasing land and farms Beatrix Potter stopped inappropriate development of the National Park and played a large part in conserving the breed we see today.
When Beatrix Potter died she left 14 farms and over 4000 acres of land to the National Trust as well as her flock of Herdwick sheep. Beatrix Potter made it clear that the land and farm’s left must remain as working farms and preserve the breed of Herdwick sheep. Beatrix Potter’s most famed residence; Hill Top Farm is still a working farm today and prides itself of maintaining a flock of quality Herdwick sheep.
If you’re interested in learning more about Beatrix Potter then join our Beatrix Potter’s Favourite Countryside tour, departing daily and visiting some of the locations mentioned including National Trust Tarn Hows, Wray Castle and Hill Top Farm.
Lake District UNESCO World Heritage site and Herdwick sheep
In 2017 the Lake District National Park was award UNESCO World Heritage Status along with sites such as the Taj Mahal, the Great Barrier Reef, Machu Picchu among many more. This status means that the Lake District is recognised to have outstanding universal value.
Many may think the Lake District National Park was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status due to the stunning natural beauty and landscape however that was not the only the reason. The breeding and preservation of Herdwick sheep played a huge role in winning the status in 2017. To be award UNESCO World Heritage status the location must have outstanding universal value, this comprised of three themes for the Lake District including -
- Identity including the landscape and people who shaped it
- The inspiring rich landscape that inspired many artist, poets and novelist throughout the years including William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and John Ruskin
- The conservation of the landscape which includes the conservation of the native Herdwick sheep breed
The continuation of traditional farming in the Lake District including the rearing of the native Herdwick sheep is unique of the Lake District National Park and developed over hundreds of years. The UNESCO website states the result in receiving this status includes “The Lake District’s continuing distinctive agro-patoral traditions based on local breeds of sheep including the Herdwick, on common fell-grazing and relatively independent farmers”.
Where can you spot the native Herdwicks?
It is said that 95% of the global population of Herdwick sheep can be found within 14 miles of Coniston. It is estimated that 40,000 of these are on National Trust farms. Many grazing Herdwick sheep can be found on the common at Elterwater, our High Adventure, Heart of the Lakes and Best of the Lake District tours all visit Elterwater village in Langdale.
You will likely spot the hardy sheep breed on most of our Lake District tours; our friendly driver-guides will point out their famous smiley faces, however, they do have a habit of wandering onto the country road so we don’t typically have to search far.
How can you support the Herdwick sheep breed?
Donate to The Herdy Fund, The fund supports upland fell farmers and rural Cumbrian communities.