Sheep farming communities were for centuries highly localised and remote from outside influences. They worked with their local sheep with distinct breeds only being developed from the latter part of the 19th century.

Sheep Breeds

The Herdwick, the Rough Fell and the Swaledale breeds have been developed by communities over the years to suit local circumstances, market forces and as an expression of their own preferences. The Herdwick and Rough Fell are fairly localised in their distribution, but the Swaledale is found widely throughout the whole area.

HerdwickThe Herdwick is a particularly hardy sheep, capable of living on the roughest terrain with scant vegetation and the country's highest rainfall. The fleece is dense and dries out much more quickly than the fleeces of other breeds. Herdwicks have a distinctive grey fleece, white heads and sturdy legs. The lambs are born largely black in colour, with their heads and legs becoming white and their fleeces becoming lighter as they age.

Herdwick sheep are generally now found in the central and western dales of the Lake District. But, originally, their range was much greater than this, extending from Caldbeck in the north to Low Furness in the south and stretching all the way to Shap and Kentmere in the east.

Although it has not been proven that the Herdwick is of Scandinavian origin, there is no doubt that Viking settlers from the 9th century were great keepers of sheep in the fells. The name derives from 'herd-vik' (Old Norse for 'sheep farm') and later became associated with the breed itself.

HerdwicksHerdwick meat is famous for its eating quality, a fact that has been borne out by taste trials at Bristol University, and an application is being made to the European Union for 'Lakeland Herdwick' to be granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.

The National Trust owns a considerable number of fell farms in the central and western dales which have important 'landlord' flocks of Herdwick sheep. Beatrix Potter was a strong supporter of Herdwick sheep and left a number of Herdwick farms to the National Trust to keep in perpetuity, as did other benefactors such as Professor G.M Trevelyan and Lake District Farm Estates. There are about 150 farms, including privately owned ones, which breed Herdwick sheep in commercial numbers.

For more information, contact:- Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association
Secretary: Amanda Carson. Tel: 01904 328833

Rough Fell SheepThese are the sheep of the 'rough fells' of old Westmorland and the western part of the Yorkshire Dales. Centred on the limestone and Silurian rocks of the Howgill and Orton fells, the land is measurably drier than the central Lakeland fells and is able to support a larger sheep. The breed was primarily kept within a twenty mile radius of Kendal, hence the breed's alternative name the 'Kendal Rough'.

The breed developed from the Blackfaced Heath sheep of the central Pennines and was first recognised as a distinct type from the mid 19th century. As well as being bred pure, Rough Fells were often mated with Wensleydale or Teeswater tups to produce a 'Masham' type of crossbred. The genetic make-up of the Rough Fell may have been influenced by the Herdwick and by the Silverdale (a horned breed of the limestone areas round Morecambe Bay, which became extinct by the First World War).

Rough fellThis is one of the biggest mountain sheep in Britain with a full white fleece and distinctive patchy face. The Rough Fell was originally bred to supply wool for the carpet industry of Kendal, as the wool is long in the staple (length of the wool fibres), white and free from kemp. Woollen products made from Rough Fell are produced at Farfield Mill, Garsdale Road, near Sedbergh.

FlockRough Fell lamb is proving to be popular with caterers because of its larger meat yield. It is available from Orton Farmers' Market and directly from some of the farms in the area.

Over the past few years Rough Fell breeders have increasingly recognised the special feature of their sheep: namely its connection with the distinctive landscape and culture of their area. A video, and DVD "Rough Fell Heritage", celebrates the life, work and landscape of the Rough Fell sheep farming community.

The Rough Fell Sheep Breeders' Association was established in 1926 and is organised into three districts: 'K' = Kendal, 'S' = Sedbergh and Kirkby Lonsdale and 'T'= Tebay, Orton and Ravenstonedale.

For more information, contact:-
Rough Fell Sheep Breeders' Association
Secretary: Pauline Tyson, Weasdale Farm, Newbiggin on Lune, Kirkby Stephen CA17 4LY
Tel: 015396 23238

Swaledales have proved to be very adaptable hill sheep due to their relative hardiness and good mothering abilities. There are now an estimated 2,500,000 Swaledale sheep in the country, largely in the northern uplands of England making them the most economically important hill sheep in England.

The Swaledale Sheep Breeders' Association was established in the early 1920s by sheep farmers who lived within a seven mile radius of the Tan Hill Inn (near where the counties of North Yorkshire, Durham and Cumbria meet). An important gathering of Swaledale sheep and their breeders still takes place in mid May at Tan Hill.

Of the 1200 pedigree flocks nationally, about a third are in Cumbria. These flocks produce tups for the many commercial Swaledale flocks in Cumbria and beyond. Kirkby Stephen is famous for its Swaledale tup sales which take place in mid-October.

The Swaledales have also been responsible for producing the most numerous sheep of the lowlands - the North of England Mule. By using tups of the Bluefaced Leicester breed on Swaledale ewes, crossbred lambs of great hybrid vigour and commercial potential are produced. Swaledale genetics, therefore, influence a significant part of the national sheep population.

The sales of Mule gimmer lambs at auction marts all over the northern uplands of England are impressive sights. In and around the Fells and Dales there are important sales at Kirkby Stephen, Lazonby, Penrith, Wigton, Cockermouth, Kendal and Ulverston. These 'mules' are bought by lowland farms where they are mated with lowland breeds such as Suffolks and Texels to produce lambs for the table.

Recently some Swaledale breeders have carried out marketing trials of their purebred Swaledale lambs for the catering trade, and attempts are being made through selective breeding to increase the meat yield from Swaledale wether lambs.

For more information, contact:-
Swaledale Sheep Breeders' Association
Secretary "C" District: W.Buckle, Bleathgill, Barras, Kirkby Stephen
Tel: 017683 41825

North of England Mule Sheep Association
Ram (tup) sales for the three Cumbrian hill sheep breeds take place as follows:-

  • Herdwicks:- Broughton Auction in the last week of September (auctioneers H & H Kendal Partnership, tel. 01539 720603).  Cockermouth Auction on the Saturday following the Broughton sale.  Contact: Mitchells' Auction, Cockermouth Tel. 01900 822016.
  • Rough Fells:- Kendal August on the third Saturday in October.  For details contact the Rough Fell Sheep Breeders' Association.
  • Swaledales:- Kirkby Stephen Auction on the third Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of October.
    Auctioneer Harrison and Hetherington. Tel. 017683 71385.