After watching a recent episode of Tony Robinson’s Coast to Coast that featured the Herdwick sheep of the Lake District, I thought I’d take a look through my library to dig up a few shots. Turns out I only have one image (the one wth the farm in) of a Herdwick, the rest are all Scottish Blackface I think.
Herdwicks are a hardy breed, it’s thought they were brought to the UK in the 11th century by Vikings. Able to withstand harsh winters left out on the fells at heights upwards of 3000 feet, their wool, although coarse and hard to dye, can be bought and used as loft insulation. It was reported one sheep survived buried in snow for three days by eating it’s own wool … double hard!
Herdwicks are hefted, this is where they’re encouraged to stay in one area without the need for fences. The area they roam is passed down through the generations, this is one reason the numbers lost through foot and mouth couldn’t be easily replaced as the new sheep would just wonder off if they weren’t first hefted to the hills.
But what I find most fascinating about Herdwicks is how they’ve helped create the picturesque Lakes District that’s such a tourist attraction today. Their grazing keeps the fells grass short and without the sheep, there wouldn’t be as many drystone walls and indeed farms I imagine. All the things I like to include in my Lake District photography. So I feel bad that I’ve only ever photographed one if it’s more or less walked into one of my shots. Something that, for nearly 1000 years, has been enduring all the Cumbrian weather can throw at it deserves more respect.
Scottish Blackface sheep
Apparently 30% of all sheep in the UK are Scottish Blackface, so that’s considerably more than the 60,000 odd Herdwicks. And although as a breed they haven’t helped sculpt the Cumbrian fells like the Herdwick, they’re still no less impressive to photograph in the landscape. Their popularity is probably the reason most of my shots turned out to be them and not Herdwicks.
Sheep not only add to the narrative of a Lake District landscape image but also add scale to the scene. Although I don’t go equipped with a sheep dog to herd them into position, I’ll definitely be more mindful in the future to include them in my images.