It takes a special animal to survive and even thrive in the highest mountains in England. The Herdwick sheep is tough: its very oily wool resists the driving westerly winds and rain in this area with the highest rainfall in the country; and it has a natural resistance to various ticks and parasites that makes it ideal for grazing miles away from the farmhouse and further still from the vet.
The Herdwick has another, inbred ability that suits it to the high fells of Borrowdale , Eskdale , Buttermere and Wasdale – it is territorial, or in local parlance heafed, in effect managing a specific part of the fells. Herdwicks rarely wander – which would make farming them a nightmare – and each ewe somehow teaches its lambs to stay in the area it has known.
The origins of the Herdwick are obscure, as might be expected of an ancient breed. Sheep farmer Andrew Sharp told me it came to the area with his horn-helmeted ancestors, and genetic studies have indicated it is indeed Scandinavian. Another possibility is that it was introduced to the area by the Cistercian monks of nearby Furness Abbey , who controlled the wool trade in the region in the Middle Ages, and whose tenants farmed the land 1,000 years ago.
Herdwick wool is grey and hard to dye, making it of little commercial value, but its meat is prized by those who want flavour from their lamb, or better yet their mutton. Some butchers avoid it because it is so strongly flavoured, gamey even. But in a stew it rises above the vegetable ingredients, and a Herdwick chop is proper meat, the flavour enhanced by sheep’s diet of grass, heather, bilberries and scrub, the animal’s propensity to eat any tree seedlings and bracken maintaining Lakeland’s traditional landscape.
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