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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In Search of Herdwick Sheep

Some time ago I became acquainted with the mystery novels of Susan Wittig Albert. She and her husband had been writing a delightful historical mystery series under the pen name Robin Paige that they brought to a close in 2006, and I wanted something more in the historical mystery line. She had recently begun a new mystery series featuring English author Beatrix Potter as a solver of crimes in and around her home, Hill Top Farm, in Near Sawrey, close to Windermere. These were fun mysteries, generally cozies with little violence and much charm.

Naturally I knew Beatrix Potter’s work. What child has not read The Tale of Peter Rabbit? When my son was small, I was given a large book with all the Beatrix Potter tales collected in it together with reproductions of the original artwork for each book. It’s a lovely treasure, and we read the entire thing several times.

My son became a firm Beatrix Potter fan, and from the time he was quite small he has also been interested in mystery stories, especially those of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. When he was in high school he began reading the Susan Wittig Albert mysteries featuring Beatrix Potter and became enthralled with the idea of life in the little Lake District village.

In the summer of 2012 we went to Ireland, and on our way to spend some time in Bath, we spent a couple of near-perfect days in the Lake District. One of Beatrix Potter’s interests as an adult with her own farms was the raising of Herdwick sheep. She became acquainted with the breed soon after purchasing Hill Top Farm in 1905, but her deep interest didn’t develop until in the 1920s she bought a huge tract of land in Troutbeck Valley and stocked it with thousands of Herdwick sheep, a breed indigenous to the Lake District. In the 1930s she and her manager, Tom Storey, won many prizes for their Herdwick ewes. When Beatrix Potter died in 1943, she left thousands of acres of farmland to the National Trust with instructions that the farms be maintained in perpetuity with Herdwick sheep on a good share of them.
Sketch of Kep Guarding Sheep by Beatrix Potter,
copyright 2006 by Frederick Warne & Co.

One of the things I was most fascinated to learn was that Herdwick sheep are “heafed” or “hefted” to the land, meaning they form territorial ties and seldom stray. This is an advantage when farmers have little fencing across the fells and moors, but it can be a disadvantage in times when disease has decimated the flocks and made it necessary to introduce new sheep to a territory, requiring the building of fences and the constant rounding up of sheep that stray because the ubiquitous tourists hiking all over the land can’t be bothered to shut gates.

We did our sightseeing from coaches, and it was hard, but I was determined to get a photograph of Herdwick sheep from the windows of the coach.

Here is one of my attempts, taken on the road between Near Sawrey and Hawkshead along the shores of Esthwaite Water. And you know what? Those are not Herdwicks. A true Herdwick is a little gray sheep with a white face, and the lambs are dark brown, almost black. They turn gray as they grow up. I don’t know what kind of sheep I photographed, but not one Herdwick. (This is the only photo by me on this page.)

Hurrah for Herdwicks!

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