There are many physical features of the Herdwick breed that strongly suggest a very considerable genetic distance from other native breeds of the UK.
The fleece colouring is highly distinctive, as is the fact that the colour changes strikingly during the development and ageing of the animal. The coat of lambs is jet black, even though their skin is white. As the lamb ages, gradually the face, then the head and ears and the legs become white. By six months, the youngsters have frost white heads and legs and the fleece has developed into a rich dark chocolate colour that is maintained until clipping. On shearing off this young fleece, the new coat is dark slate grey. For some sheep, the fleeces thereafter remain the dark colour – for others the fleeces progressively become a paler grey as the sheep ages. Sometimes the very first fleece of the shearling can be pale grey and this can remain or become near white in subsequent years.
Historically, Herdwicks have been maintained in vast fell flocks composed of many thousand animals. Today there continue to be some large fell flocks, but the numbers of these flocks are decreasing – not least as a result of the short-sightedness of organisations that do not understand how to manage the biodiversity of the fells by appropiate grazing and are enforcing the removal of sheep.
Today, Herdwick sheep can still be seen in the countryside of the Lakes, but as a locally adapted breed thriving in the severe environment of the high fells, they are endangered by the very fact they are so geographically concentrated in a single region. This was illustrated during the dreadful Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic in the UK of 2001.
The epidemic and its impact on livestock and farmers led to the founding of The Sheep Trust, a national charity committed to safeguarding the future of locally adapted sheep breeds – those native breeds that continue to be commercially farmed, continue to exist in many tens of thousand, but are at risk because they are geographically concentrated.
The Herdwicks are concentrated in Cumbria, but the Charity proved there were other beeds equally concentrated and at risk in other regions of England, Scotland and Wales.
There are many organizations working now to help ensure the success and continued numbers of Herdwicks and their very special qualities. The breed offers very significant advantages and opportunities to a farming industry that must be sustainable and able to protect our national food security in a changing climate. Visit the websites : www.herdwick-sheep.com and www.thesheeptrust.org for information and further links.
A lakeland fell breed
Up to 95% of Herdwick breed numbers are tightly clustered in a small radius of some 20 km from the geographical centre of the breed in the Lake District. The Herdwick is a breed of the highest fells – renowned for hardiness and the independence needed for survival.