HSBA History

A brief description of the history of HSBA

The Herdwick has been in the Lake District for a very long time. Their ancestors go back to the earliest domestication of sheep about 10,000 years ago when sheep from south west Asia migrated to Europe. Genetic analysis has described these evolutionary migrations with the Herdwick descending from the Northern Pin Tail group of sheep probably introduced to Britain around 5,500 year ago.  We have little evidence of the development of early pastoralism, however  genetic analysis shows that the Herwick has remained isolated, little influenced by other breeds and retaining many characteristics of primitive wild sheep.

Wild sheep have two coats, which the Herdwick has retained, a woolly waistcoat and a protective hairy outer coat that does not part when the wind blows like other improved sheep breeds. Hollow kempy white fibres in the coat shed water quickly keeping the sheep dry protecting them from the high rainfall, up to 160 inches and wild Atlantic winds on fells rising to 3000 feet. The white faces and horns only in the males are other distinctive characteristics. Selection processes have created an animal that is ideally suited to its environment and no other breed can live as long, rear strong lambs and survive on the high fells.

All wild and feral sheep have a strong female home range tendency and this natural instinct has been encouraged in certain flocks to become the management practice known as hefting. It enables livestock to graze selected areas without the need for fencing and is especially strong in Herdwicks, that graze common land, such that the sheep are retained with the farm when the farm is sold or changes tenant.  The name Herdwyck is recorded in documents dating back to the sixth century and refers to sheep pasture. It remained as a name in the Lake District to describe farms, a Herdwick of sheep at Lawson Park is recorded in 1564, where sheep were let with the farm and in time became associated with the mountain sheep on these farms.

Local folklore links the Herdwick to the Vikings, whose presence influenced the culture and language of the Lake District in the ninth century and it is possible that they also influenced the farming practices and introduced sheep. Interestingly genetic analysis has also shown a rare shared trait with Texel sheep, with the Island of Texel close to the Viking trading stronghold of the Waddle Sea. A tradition shared with Scandinavians is the practice of lug marking, where notches are clipped from the sheep’s ears at an early age. These identification marks are recorded in the Shepherds Guides (first published in 1817) and allow stray sheep to be returned to their owners.

Lake District farming became more organised with the formation of the monastic Abbeys,  Furness in the twelfth century was granted lands in Windermere, Coniston, Borrowdale, Honister, Eskdale, Great Gable and Styhead.  Fountains Abbey in the thirteenth century held estates in Watendlath and Langstrath and the growth of the wool trade to Europe allowed the monasteries to accumulate vast wealth. While the wool from these northern sheep was coarse and of a lower value, the volume was considerable.

Heafs of sheep were described in the1600’s and by the 1700 agricultural surveys were conducted and recognised a distinct type of mountain sheep in the Lake District

“There is a kind of sheep in these mountains called Herdwicks these sheep lye upon the very tops of the mountains in that season (winter) as well as in summer “. James Clarke, A Survey of the Lakes (1787).

It is clear therefore that in the Lake District there were substantial flocks of sheep, up to 4000 animals, as well as small tenanted farms, with a distinctive type of a small ancient sheep.

The West Cumberland Fell Dales Sheep Association was formed in 1844 to facilitate breeders’ access to tups for breeding either by sale or hire. This show and sale rotated between Loweswater, Ennerdale and Nether Wasdale attracting up to 100 exhibitors. These sheep were judged on their fell going characteristics and were rejected if they had been unfairly flushed for the sake of the exhibition.

In 1864 the Fell Dales Association for the Improvement of Herdwick Sheep was created and held its first show at the Woolpack Inn in Eskdale. While it became the largest gathering of Herdwick sheep for sale or hire, it too emphasised the requirement for hardy sheep that were fit for purpose and a life on the fells. Rules were created and no field fed sheep were allowed to compete for prizes!  “Eshd’l Show” is still held on the last Saturday of September and is recognised as The Herdwick show.

Breed points began to become established – no speckles on the face or legs, legs to be set well apart on the body, strong bone and a broad head.

Cannon Rawnsley (one of the founders of the National Trust) was instrumental in establishing the Herdwick Sheep Breed Society in 1899. Herdwicks had a class at the Royal Show and some lowland sheep breeds had formed societies and set up flock books. This society arranged Ram fairs in the spring (for hired rams to be returned) and autumn fairs. Cannon Rawnsley was a keen observer of Herdwick farming and wrote “ A crack about Herdwick Sheep” in 1911. Beatrix Potter visited Cannon Rawnsley on her early holidays to the Lake District with her parents and it is likely that his admiration for Herdwick farmers and passion for the cultural landscape had an influence on the young Beatrix.

However at the Fell Dales Show in 1916, where some farms each exhibited 60 rams in one of the classes, the Herdwick breeders decided that there was a need to improve the breed standard and create a flock book.  In typical independent style these founding fathers formed their own Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association. On the 4th of November 1916 S.D Stanley-Dodgson of Cockermouth was elected President and William Wilson of Watendlath as Secretary.  The first flock book was produced in 1920 (possibly delayed due to the war) and nearly 1200 Rams were registered from 130 farms. Flock Number 1 of John Edmondson at Seathwaite in Borrowdale is still farmed by his descendant Peter Edmondson and his son Alan. In 1921 a further 67 flocks and 900 rams were added and by 1927 the total number of Herdwick flocks was 245.

The Cliafe flock No 220 of Mrs William Heelis Hill Top Farm Sawrey was registered with HSBA in 1924.

Wordsworth wrote eloquently of the Lake District yeomen and their flocks in recognition of the wider value of traditional farming practice to cultural landscapes at a time when people were beginning to question increasing production at all costs. For the first time the concept of public good through caring for the environmental was expressed. Cannon Rawnsley too was passionate about the value of traditional farming practices and recognised the sustainability of the agro-pastoralism practiced by fell farmers. Beatrix Potter was also inspired by Herdwick sheep and fell farming. She attended all the Annual meetings of HSBA from 1926 and even chaired meetings of the executive committee and successfully exhibited sheep at local shows. Her letters describe similar challenges faced by farmers today, from the threat of liver fluke to the bureaucracy of and lack of understanding by institutions. In 1943 Mrs Heelis was voted President elect for 1944 although sadly died before she was able to take up that office. She was so passionate about  the cultural landscape and Herdwick sheep that when she died, she left all her 4,000 acres of land, her 21 farms and numerous cottages to the National Trust and included a stipulation that Herdwicks should remain on these farms. Her legacy remains one of the largest and most significant bequests ever made.

The submission of the Lake District for inscription as a World Heritage site strongly affirms ‘its unique landscape dominated by upland pastoral farming’ whose traditions make possible the farming of a challenging environment.

The Herdwick Sheep Breeds Association is proud to celebrate 100 years.