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HEFTED SHEEP - a phenomenon cast aside?

Introduction by Astrid Goddard

People love Dolphins and Whales. Who among us does not have a feeling of awe and respect for such mysterious and beautiful creatures? And that is certainly as it should be. However, we do not have to go to the oceans to find mysteries and wonders. Among us, in our midst, should we be fortunate to live in or visit the countryside, there are wonders enough to begin with.

Gentle and placid, sheep are often and easily overlooked. Yet they are knowing and extraordinary animals, worthy of further study. The phenomenon of the Hefted sheep is now in danger of being lost forever, yet the majority of us have never heard about it.

"Hefted" or "heafed", means that the sheep live on their own part of the mountain and do not need fences. Here in Cumbria and the Lake District, they live in the hills and mountains in all weathers. They are brought into the "in-by" land, at the bottom of the hills, and near the farms, only at times of lambing, dipping and shearing. However, they will return to their own part of the mountain instinctively. This "homing instinct" is the result of centuries of evolution and if it were to be destroyed by mass slaughter then it could never be restored.

In this part of the country we have Herdwicks, Swaledales and Rough Fells. The first Herdwick sheep probably came with Norse settlers in the 10th century. Although they may have been part of the flocks of the Cistercian monks of Furness Abbey. Either way they have been indigenous for the last 1000 years. The Herdwick is seen around the Duddon Valley, the Coniston Fells, the Buttermere Fells and through Borrowdale and Wasdale up to the highest land in England, the Scafells.

The Swaledales are found throughout the northern counties of England, and on the Pennines. The Rough Fell breed roams the Howgill Fells around Kendal, Sedbergh, Tebay and up to Shap in south-east Cumbria.

Hefted sheep cannot be understood in isolation. The sheep are inseparable from the farmers who live on and care for the land where the sheep live. The hill farmers also, are a knowing and wise breed. A breed apart - and a rare breed themselves - they are involved in the land, which in turn is in their blood.

In order to understand this subject, I visited two established hill farming families, with a notable history in Cumbria, and interviewed farmers Willie Richardson of Gatesgarth Farm, and Geoffrey Sedgwick and son Roger of Lockbank Farm.

I believe it is perfectly correct to describe both the farmers and their stock, and the flora and fauna that are interdependent with them, as indigenous. Were they to be cast aside and uprooted, the farmers to be relegated to, perhaps, factory jobs - on Lord Haskin's production line - and the sheep to disappear from the land, of which they are efficient gardeners, then an entire and irreplaceable ecosystem would be lost.

Here in Cumbria, everything has been affected by the draconian and illogical policy on foot and mouth, at the hands of our "Department for the Extinction of Farming and Ruination of Agriculture" (DEFRA).

Horrifying estimates to date (November 2001) suggest that the Foot and Mouth "cull" may have destroyed 40% of the national Herdwick flock, 40% of Rough Fell, and 50% of Swaledales. On 22 October, the secretary of the Herdwick sheep breeders, Geoff Brown, said only 7,500 of the Rough Fells remained, virtually all in the Howgills.

If the sheep go, the farms will go, and the landscape will deteriorate. Moss, bogs and marshes will spread, and gorse and juniper will take over. The beautiful stone walls will collapse through lack of care, paths will become overgrown and the pastures and meadows will turn to wet, swampy grounds.

Many families who have farmed here in the same place for 600 years, are now in danger of giving up and moving away, or worse. Native people are being forced off their land! If this were happening elsewhere in the world, perhaps at the hands of an oil company or corrupt government, there would be an outcry.

The names below link to each interview....

G+R Sedgwick, Lockbank Farm William Richardson, Gatesgarth Farm

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