The new campaign to aid Herdwick sheep farming in the Lake District
PUBLISHED: 10:28 10 January 2014 | UPDATED: 17:20 27 April 2016
The Prince’s Countryside Fund has provided £50,000 to help struggling Herdwick farmers. Sue Riley went to Coniston to meet one
The Lake District landscape hasn’t changed much over the centuries, with its winding stone walls, white cottages and rocky outcrops on which Herdwick sheep graze high up on the fells. Hill farmer Glenn Wilkinson is one of the 21st Century custodians of the land with his wife Dorothy, whose family has farmed in the area since the 1700s. They’re acutely aware of the role sheep have played in creating the landscape – particularly as their rented farm near Coniston was one of 14 left to the National Trust by Beatrix Potter who is widely credited with saving the area from developers and protecting the Herdwick breed. Dorothy even remembers her mother telling stories about how as a child she met Miss Potter, long before she married and set up home at Tilberthwaite Farm.
‘We love the shepherding and fell gathering, the traditional way of life associated with it. There’s great respect between the community and farmers who have farmed for generations,’ Dorothy said. ‘The Herdwick community is like one big family,’ added Glenn. But he worries about the future, an understandable concern when you hear the average annual income of hill farmers is £6,000 and that 5,000 people quit farming in 2012. ‘It’s getting tougher, we have never been so hard up,’ said Dorothy. The couple say they pay more for the sheep shearing and transportation every July than they receive from the Wool Board. Then there’s the mountain of paperwork and increasing fuel and food bills.
Now, a new campaign to protect the unique skills of the hill farmer and promote the Herdwick as a superior meat has been launched. Following on from the Herdwick being given protected status last year (the sheep must be bred, reared and slaughtered in here to use the name Herdwick) the Prince’s Countryside Fund has given £50,000 to a scheme by Taste Cumbria and the Breeders’ Association to help the farmers. ‘The Herdwick Breeders’ Association worked hard these last 15 years and people recognise Herdwick as a meat product now. These sheep are out there in the natural vegetation eating different grasses and mosses so the meat is sweeter, maturer and has a firmer texture. Herdwick cooked in the Rayburn, there’s nothing better,’ said Dorothy.
The couple say they are slowly starting to see an effect and there has been a slight increase in meat prices in the past year. The campaign is not just about supplying quality lamb though, it’s also about protecting the hill farmers’ way of life which Prince Charles is interested in. ‘It’s farmers who keep the Lake District and, if it was not for them, it would not look like it does.’
The cost of just keeping the miles of dry stone walls maintained would be prohibitive. ‘It’s more important keeping the paperwork than keeping the animals right now,’ said Glenn, referring to the administration which he believes has taken much of the fun out of farming.
Although they use modern equipment including quad bikes and scanners in the lambing season, there are some farming techniques which have remained unchanged through the generations. Their 600 hectares of land includes Tilberthwaite, the Greenburn Valley and the peaks of Swirl How and Wetherlam which no quad bike will negotiate. When the sheep need to be brought in for tupping, lambing and shearing it’s done as it has been for centuries – on foot. ‘The gathering of them has never changed.
It’s man, dog and stick,’ said Glenn. ‘Being traditional is not necessarily being old fashioned,’ added Dorothy. ‘The Herdwicks are almost wild really, it sounds a bit silly but they rely on their natural instincts, they are different from other sheep. If they start getting poorly they will make their way home and stand at the fell gate. They are very independent and if you try to keep them in, they are desperate to get out. They do not like being contained,’ said Glenn. So the sheep are left to roam the land, mainly in the fells at around 3,000 feet.
No two days are the same for the couple, although the farming timetable is a tight one. For example, the sheep are brought down from the fells ready for tupping on November 28 which leads to the start of lambing on April 25. In quieter times Glenn maintains the land, rebuilds the stone walls and fences, fixes the drains. They also supplement their income with a holiday let in Tilberthwaite and some years ago bought 28 acres of land nearby which is their nest egg. Dorothy also works as a co-ordinator on the Hill Farm Succession Scheme to encourage more young people into upland farming, a project which is supported by Prince Charles.
Their two adult sons help out on the farm although they can’t afford to pay both of them so Robert, 28, and 25-year-old George do a job share. Unusually, the couple who took on the farm in 1986 after Dorothy’s father retired, have a right to pass the National Trust farm down to their sons if they wish (most contracts these days are for 15 years) but they’re not sure that will happen. Glenn, who is 56, said: ‘We are getting to the time now when we should be able to slow down a little bit but it’s not possible. Our youngest son says we are absolutely mad. The young ones are not going to work for nothing and I hope they don’t. It’s taken 1,000 years to create the landscape, the monks started keeping sheep but in another generation it could all be lost. It’s like we say about everything, if you let things go they will be gone forever.’
*To buy meat from Glenn ring 01539 437281. It can also be purchased at Yew Tree Farm in Coniston (07732 757043).
Herd - the news
99 per cent of flocks of Herdwick sheep are in the Lake District
They are a robust, native breed, prevalent in the Central and Western Lake District
There are about 150 farms, including privately owned ones, which breed on a commercial basis
They are the hardiest of UK hill sheep and can endure conditions as high as 3,000 feet
The wool was used to make Russian Army uniforms and carpets and tweeds
Children’s author Beatrix Potter became an expert in breeding Herdwicks
Lambs are mostly born black and develop white heads and legs as they mature.