The ability to thrive on some of Britain’s highest and wettest fell land without any supplementary feeding is what the Herdwick is all about – and it’s one of the main reasons the Hartley family has remained dedicated to the breed for more than 200 years. But environmental schemes are now starting to affect the way this Lake District flock is managed.
Anthony Hartley of Turner Hall Farm, Seathwaite, Cumbria, would be happy with a lambing percentage of 100% achieved from a late spring lambing in a system where ewes take no harm spending the winter on fell land running to 2500ft without any extra feed.
But since cutting back the flock by 45% four years ago as part of an ESA agreement, lambing percentage has increased as fell grazings have improved. Now 30% of the flock is producing twins as better keep on higher grazings is increasing fecundity.
While that may seem like a welcome bonus to some hill farmers, in reality it means more in-bye land is needed to carry ewes in late pregnancy and feed blocks have to be offered to those that need them.
The natural survivor… Many sheep producers have switched to Swaledales, but Herdwick has surviving on the lakes down to an artform.
“A farm like this relies increasingly on income from support payments – both green and otherwise – to remain viable. But in reality the reduced fell stocking rate is bringing changes to how the flock is managed. And that means higher costs by having to rent more lower land as well as the cost of labour and feed.
“We’re working with fewer sheep, but over a bigger area of fell land and that increases gathering costs in terms of labour and time,” says Mr Hartley.
Ability to thrive
As the son of legendary Herdwick breeder Tyson Hartley, Mr Hartley is the fourth generation of the family to run the flock. And while some may say the Herdwick owes much of its continued existence to the stipulation for the 90-plus National Trust tenants to keep the breed on their farms, Mr Hartley says the Herdwick has no equal in its ability to thrive on the high Lakeland fells.
There are 323ha (800 acres) plus fell rights at Turner Hall Farm carrying 850 Herdwick ewes. About 500 ewes are “hand-picked” to run with selected tups in batches of 60 and it’s from these groups that flock replacements are selected, as well as tup lambs to be sold as shearlings for breeding.
“We’ve never fed ewes – unless we give some fodder in extremely bad weather. To help us manage the flock in that way we don’t start tupping until late November. If we let rams in earlier the ewes would be further in-lamb during the winter and that would mean we had to feed them. But with a high lambing percentage we’re now having to do that.
“Although there’s more grass on the fell since ewe numbers were reduced we’re now faced with more ewes carrying twins and needing more management in late pregnancy.
“On this farm we can’t put ewes with twins back to the fell until late summer, so we’re having to change our system to accommodate ewes with twins from March onwards on lower ground.
“About 30% of the flock is now producing two lambs – and that percentage is increasing,” says Mr Hartley. And ewe lambs born as a twin and spending the first summer on in-bye, are reckoned not to “heft” as well as single-born lambs reared entirely on the fell.
Mr Hartley describes the Herdwick as a “natural survivor” and while some Lake District hill farms have switched to Swaledales and even Cheviots, he is adamant no other pure breed can survive on Lakeland’s high, central fells without supplementary feeding.
All wether lambs are retained and finished. They are trough-fed on in-bye to reach finished weights of about 19-20kg deadweight. For the past five years just over 200 wethers have been sold to two local butchers between January to May.
But feed prices and the cost of labour are making big inroads into hill farming incomes businesses where sheep sales are only generating part of the farm-based income.
“A breed that can produce a lamb without any extra feed – and it’s a lamb that’s good enough to be marketed by name by butchers – and still make a decent price as a five-shear draft ewe, has got to have a good future if Lake District hill farms are to survive,” adds Mr Hartley.