Cumbrian fell farmers believe the removal of Herdwick sheep from the Lake District is tantamount to “ethnic cleansing” as environmental agreements to further reduce stocking rates from the fells continue to decimate the region’s hill flocks.

Hill farmer Will Rawling, who runs Herdwicks at Ennerdale, said the scale of the removal of sheep from the fells was breaking down the hill farming structure of the Lake District.

“No one seems to be taking a blind bit of notice of what’s going on up here. We’re having to stand by and watch sheep disappear off the fells – and if there are no sheep, there are no farms and no people.

“We’re witnessing the dismantling of our hill farms and our communities by environmentalists whose theoretical approaches to improving the landscape by taking sheep off the fells are already proving to be seriously flawed.

“But by the time anyone takes any notice of us we’ll all have gone the same way as the sheep and it’ll be too late to put back the landscape that farming created in the first place.”

At the traditional October sale of draft Herdwick ewes at Cockermouth, entries were up by almost 1500 head to total 4000 – an increase caused largely by big entries of ewes from flocks entering de-stocking agreements. One flock had entered 800 ewes.

Auctioneer Adam Day from Mitchells said that although everyone understood why these extra sheep were in the market, the increased entry made everyone realise that continuing attempts by environmentalists to de-stock the Lake District fells showed no sign of abating.

“The higher entry inevitably impacted on those farmers who rely on these sales for income from their draft ewes.

“Prices were affected and it was very disheartening to see good-quality Herdwick ewes with several years of breeding life still to come, end up making £20 for killing. And these are sheep that we all worked so hard to save when the breed was hit so hard during foot-and-mouth.”

Hill farmers have called for an urgent review of the way de-stocking is undertaken and suggested a staggered approach to removing hill sheep which would at least enable the environmental impact to be monitored.