11 January 2004

 Ullswater Foxes and Herdwick's 1.

Yes, I here you say once more... Foxes ok, but Herdwick?s?

Well Herdwick's are an old breed of sheep that have roamed free on the Lake District fells for a few hundred years now. They are a small tough breed of sheep with an exceptionally thick, shaggy coat, dirty grey in colour and often with a black fleck or occasional dark patches running through.

These initial memories go back first to our 1940s time at Sharrow Bay.

The tough Herdwick's roam the fell tops and steep fell sides and crop the vegetation as close as a lawn. The steep fell sides angling up to 60 degrees or sometimes more, are patterned with undulating horizontal sheep tracks which the sheep use for grazing and moving up or down the steep fell sides.

There are no walls or fences here and each farm's Herdwick's roam together and a tar mark on the coat identifies the owner. The sheep tend to stay within the local area and not often mingle with other flocks in adjacent areas. This has been inbred into the Herdwick's over hundreds of years as is also the sense to come down off the tops and fell sides in winter for shelter when snow is sensed approaching. We humans knew when the snow was coming as we looked out the window and could see the sheep winding their way slowly down the fell side, never mind what the weather forecasters predicted.

The sheep arriving in the fell bottoms would huddle in groups behind the large car sized or larger boulders and behind the drystone walls on the leeward side and hole up here until the storm was over. The snow would blow off the steep fell sides and down into the valley bottoms and form into deep drifts, walls and boulders would be covered, buildings would have snowdrifts to the eaves and the sheep would be more often than not, buried. The heat from the huddled sheep would start to melt the snow and soon an air hole would form tinged with yellow from the hot fetid breath and body heat of the sheep. In times of severe snow storms and especially at early Spring lambing time the farmers and shepherds would use these yellow tinged markers to locate buried sheep and new born lambs. And the sheepdogs knew where to sniff too!

The Herdwick's knew when the storm was over and after patiently waiting would start to trample the snow in the hole until a pathway was trampled to the surface. They would move out onto the fell side blown almost free of snow and nuzzle the remaining snow aside to reach the vegetation below.

During the late spring was the time for shearing. The local farmers would band together with their dogs and herd the sheep down off the fell tops and the fell sides down into the bottom. The dogs would be black dots bounding up the fell sides searching in all the nooks and crannies of the crags for reluctant stragglers. The newly shorn sheep were marked with each farmers tar marking and the unmarked part grown lambs of the present season were identified by their staying in close proximity of the mother and then branded with the mother's mark.

The newly shorn animals would wend their way back up as white coloured dots against the dull grey-green fell side cropping as they went, no doubt to their favourite feeding sites.

In the year 2002 foot and mouth disease hit Cumbria badly and many animals were slaughtered, also any other stock within a designated radius of the infected stock. There was great fear held for this ancient breed of sheep as farms bordering the Lake District fell areas became infected.

Fortunately the Herdwick sheep flocks were spared.

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