Herdwick Heritage Genebank
The Herdwick is the iconic breed of the Lake District. The Herdwicks have been in the Lake District for over a thousand years and have become supremely adapted to the harsh environment of the high fells.
Herdwicks are the foundation of Fell-farming which is one of the most sustainable agricultural systems in the UK today, in which the needs of the wild habitat and those of the domesticated animals are balanced and nurtured. Essentially, the environment of the high fells is maintained by the grazing of the sheep.
Back in 2001 Foot & Mouth Disease threatened the Herdwick sheep as the disease swept across its homeland of Cumbria. We know that 95% of the Herdwicks are found in Cumbria and the disease posed a real threat; ultimately about third of the population of Herdwicks was lost during 2001. The Sheep Trust charity was formed during that time by scientists committed to protecting British sheep breeds. At the height of the crisis they collected embryos and semen from Herdwick sheep and the Heritage Genebank archive was started but remained incomplete.
This is a complicated and costly process that has to be carefully managed.
Adding carefully selected embryos and semen to the Sheep Trust’s Herdwick Heritage Genebank Archive will help protect the Herdwick in a more and more unpredictable world.
In 2016 to mark the centenary of the HSBA, the Herdy Company came forward to help mark the occasion by offering to fund a collection of Herdwick embryos to enhance the existing collection.
A Three way collaboration developed between the Herdy Company, the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association and Newton Rigg Agricultural College. Herdwick ewes from carefully selected farms were taken to Newton Rigg Agricultural College at Penrith and students at the college helped care for the Herdwicks and learn about the complex techniques of embryo collection.
Herdwick breeders put forward ewes from the following flocks, P Naylor, Bowderdale, G Wilkinson Tilberthwaite, M Fox Crosbythwaite, A Hartley Turner Hall, C Brownrigg Skiddaw, G Bland West Head, S Jackson Nook, I Benson Fell Foot, J Wilson Dockray,
Embryo collection can be likened to IVF in people, it can be disappointing. All the sheep produced eggs but not all were viable for freezing. Nevertheless 19 embryos were harvested from three new Herdwick flocks Fell Foot, West Head and Dockray, adding to the five flocks already in the bank.
Our Herdwick Genebank now has the largest and most varied collection of sheep germplasm with embryos from 8 flocks and semen from 14 flocks.
The Lake District as it is known and loved was created by a pastoral process of farming sheep and it is vital that the value of the Herdwick sheep living on the fells and their shepherds is recognised and protected. But as the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic proved, we need insurance against future, as yet unknown, crises and the addition of genetic material to the Genebank through the support of the Herdy Company and Newton Rigg College has provided a safeguard for the Herdwick breed.