The Ruskin Museum, Coniston, Cumbria

The Ruskin Museum

Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901

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Herdwick Sheep

HERDWICKS are sturdy, coarse-woolled sheep found mainly on the Lake District fells in Cumbria. The true origin of the breed is not known. It is thought that sheep may have come into Cumbria from a Spanish Armada ship which was wrecked off the Cumbrian coast, but this cannot be substantiated. They may well have been introduced by Norse-Irish settlers in the 10th and 11th Centuries, or they may be derived from animals introduced by Neolithic or Bronze Age herdsmen.

The word 'Herdwick'

The word 'Herdwick' actually means the pasture where the sheep are kept, seemingly derived from the old Norse 'Herd-vic' (a sheep farm). Their fleeces keep out the worst of weathers, they survive off little herbage and are the only pure breed of sheep able to live on the high Lake District fells throughout the year. They are also suited to life on the open fells because they have a "HEAFING" instinct. This means they become 'heafed' to their own piece of fell, and individual sheep almost always return to that part of the fell.

Sheep 'Marks'

When flocks do mix, farmers are able to recognise their own sheep by means of sheep 'marks'; each sheep is marked in two ways - with a 'LUG' mark on the ear, and a 'SMIT' mark on the fleece. These lug marks are the lawful ownership marks - a piece of ear is taken out. Today, smit for marking the fleece is made from a chemical dye. In the past, red ruddle (from Haematite Iron Ore) or graphite mixed with grease or whale-oil was used. The marks for each individual flock is recorded in a SHEPHERD'S GUIDE.

The sheep are gathered and brought down from the fell four or five times during the year - for dipping/spraying, dosing, shearing, tupping and lambing. Before compulsory dipping was introduced in 1905, sheep were washed in deep pools. The sheep were gathered into the wash-fold on the beck ( stream) edge and tossed into the water where they were dunked (pushed under) and then they swam to the further bank. However, chemical dipping in a tub ensured that the wool was washed and the sheep was protected from blowfly and scab. Today many sheep are sprayed rather than dipped in a tub.

SHearing or Clipping

SHEARING or CLIPPING takes place in early July, when the whole flock is brought down from the fell to the farm. Today, most farmers use electric shears to shear off the wool, but a few still use hand-shears. To shear by hand, farmers would sit astride a slatted stool or creel with the sheep upended in front of them. Before the advent of electric shears, which made the process much quicker, hand-shearing was a communal occasion, when each farmer helped his neighbours. After being shorn, the sheep are newly smitted before going back to the fell.

Tups or Rams

In November, the tups or rams are put to the ewes (female sheep). Traditionally, tups were hired at the Autumn Tup Fairs, kept for Winter and returned in May. Today most farmers have their own tups. For show purposes, tups are dressed with red colouring to make them look good, and they are also coloured when running with the ewes to show the farmer which ewes have been served.


'BRATTING' is still used by some farmers as a form of contraception on the younger female sheep. Herdwicks are smaller than the average sheep, and a ewe can die or become poor and stunted in growth if she lambs at too young an age. A 'TWINTER 'is a sheep approaching her second birthday; a 'THRINTER' her third. Some twinters are 'BRATTED' or 'CLOUTED', whereby a piece of clout or a brat is sewn over their bottoms as a form of contraception. A brat is local dialect for a stout apron made of coarse, heavy-duty cloth (clout). This brat would remain in place from mid-November until February. These sheep would then lamb as thrinters.

The mature sheep are then taken back to the fell for the winter months. In the past, ash and holly trees were pollarded, that is cut off about ten to twelve feet from the ground, every twelve years or so. The sheep ate the leaves and bark to supplement their meagre diet. Today however, hay, baled silage, concentrates and mineral blocks are put out for them. The young sheep or 'HOGGS' (Lambs in their first year) are often wintered in a more sheltered place such as round the farmstead, or away near the coast or on lowland farms which will favour growth and survival. In March the sheep are gathered down to the intakes and pastures for a few weeks before they drop their lambs, which happens from the middle of April to the middle of May. At the end of May the ewes and lambs are returned to the heaf until July when shearing takes place.