Herdwicks are a dual-purpose breed, producing a well flavoured meat and a distinctive grey wool. The breed is a slow maturing one and is one of the hardiest of all the British hill sheep breeds as it is bred to withstand the coldest of winters in the lake district. Most Herdwicks spend winter on the fells, from approximately December to April. They are normally left to graze the hillsides without any additional feeding. Due to the harsh conditions on fells, lamb percentages are generally low, but it is this ability to thrive unassisted is one reason why fell farmers so highly value Herdwicks over lowland breeds.
A Herdwick’s grey fleece is not easily dyed and is coarse, so it is best suited to use as carpet wool. The wool is also an excellent natural insulator; it is possible to buy sheets of fireproofed wool to fit as loft insulation.
Herdwick lambs are born black but their fleece lightens to a dark brown colour. After the first shearing, their fleece lightens further to grey. Rams are horned and ewes polled.
The word ‘herwick’ or ‘herdvyck’ means sheep pasture, it is recorded in documents dating back to the 12th century. The origin of the breed itself is unknown, but it is thought that the ancestors of Herdwick sheep were introduced by early Norse settlers. It was brought to the UK somewhere between the 10th and 11th centuries during the Viking invasions of western England. By the 12th century the Herdwick was an important breed in the lake district.
The outbreak of Foot and Mouth in 2001 resulted in many Herdwick flocks being destroyed. However, numbers are increasing again and the breed is still a popular choice on upland fell farms in England.
In the latter half of the 19th century they were introduced to Ireland by the Landlords who owned vast estates in the mountains along the west coast. The strains seen today are a result of cross breeding between the regional gene pools.
The breed has found niche markets in the UK for meat and wool products. It is widely used in conservation grazing due to its durability and low management requirements.
The breed is suited to rugged upland habitats such as heath and bogs. As with all upland breeds it will also thrive in lowland semi natural grasslands.