Updated: Jul 21, 2022
The Herdwick is the native breed of the Lake District, championed by Beatrix Potter. It is thought to have been brought to this country by the Vikings over 1000 years ago. The name comes from the Old Norse word herdvyck meaning sheep pasture and is recorded in 12th Century documents. It is a minority breed with 95% of the 50 000 sheep living within a 14 mile radius of Coniston. They are a very hardy, able to live their entire lives on the fells with a very strong homing instinct: they never wander far from where they were born. The Cumbrian word for this is “hefted.” Lambs learn where home is from their mothers when they are turned out on the fells in late spring. For this reason, when a farm is sold, the sheep are sold with the farm.
Herdwick wool is very course wool, belonging to the lowest price band of the Wool Marketing Board both because of its courseness and because it is not white. Herdwick wool on the sheep naturally sheds water and dries more quickly than many wools - essential for surviving on the fells. Farmers pay more to have their sheep shorn than they receive for the wool, but shearing is essential for the health of the sheep. Off the sheep, it is used for carpets(https://www.wocc.co.uk) and recyclable, naturally fire retardant insulation (https://www.thermafleece.com), but more recently, the better quality wool has begun to be made into Herdwick tweed (https://www.herdwick.co.uk/herdwick-tweed which is naturally water repellant. Poorer quality wool is mixed with bracken harvested from the fells and made into fertiliser (https://www.dalefootcomposts.co.uk) and some is even used for Lake District footpath reparis on boggy gound. There is even a company combining Herdwick wool with fibreglass to make furniture! (https://www.solidwool.com).
Herdwick lamb and mutton have a very distinct taste, and were even eaten at Queen Elizabeth II's 1953 coronation banquet. In 2013, Lakeland Herdwick meat received a Protected Designation of Origin from the European Union (like Champagne and Burgundy).
Herdwick lambs are born in late April or May when the weather in the Lake District is warmer. They are usually born black. When they are a year old (a “hogg), they are dark brown but in between, they gradually acquire their distinctive white face.
As they mature, their coats become lighter, ranging from dark grey to almost white. Herdwick ewes are “polled” (have no horns); rams (or “tups) usually have horns.
I use locally sourced Herdwick wool for my Herdwick sheep.