Linda Stimson plans to have a herd of Herdwick sheep established on her 170-acre western Oregon farm by 2010.
Herdwicks are a very hardy old breed of mysterious origins that are indigenous to the rugged Lake Country of northern England. Stimson, who was born in Oxford, England, fell in love with Herdwicks because Beatrix Potter is her favorite children’s literature author. If you know who Beatrix Potter is it is probably because you recall her tales about Peter Rabbit, Mr. McGregor, and Jemima Puddle Duck. But the people of Cumbria, in northern England, also know Potter as someone who helped preserve large tracts of grazing land for their iconic sheep.
They also know her as an accomplished sheep breeder and shepherd. When Potter died in 1943 she gave 4,000 acres of farmland in Cumbria’s mountainous Lake Country to Britain’s National Trust with the understanding that her beloved Herdwick sheep would graze there in perpetuity.
Potter was the first woman to be elected president-designate of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders’ Association.
The Association continues to flourish today. Inspired by Potter’s work to safeguard the breed, Linda Stimson intends to establish Herdwicks in the United States.
“Beatrix Potter was one of my favorite authors when I was growing up,” she said. “When I did some more research on her and learned about her work with Herdwicks I was inspired.”
Getting Into Herdwicks
Stimson currently has 13 three-month-old 50 percent Herdwick lambs. Five of those are ewes. The lambs are the result of artificially inseminating Suffolk, Polypay-Friesian crosses, and Finn ewes with imported Herdwick semen. The semen came from a Lake Country shepherd named Mary Bell.
“I ran across Mary Bell on-line,” Stimson said. “She has a herd of Herdwicks and had collected semen from a ram. The Lake Country is in the north of England so she sent her lamb to Edinburgh Scotland for collection. She had collected him mostly because in 2001 they had the hoof and mouth outbreak and that resulted in the destruction of 25 percent of the Herdwicks. She was concerned for the breed’s survival.”
Bell had collected the semen before Stimson contacted her. That caused Stimson to be concerned that the USDA protocol for collection had not been followed.
“The American authorities are very strict, and you have to go through a lot of paperwork to make sure that what comes here is not carrying any sort of disease,” Stimson said. “But she had actually collected according to the USDA protocol. I was so excited.”
Stimson bought 25 straws for 25 British pounds per straw and had FedEx fly them to the U.S. They arrived on July 4, 2007. Following a complicated hormone manipulation the AI technician surgically inseminated her ewes. Fourteen ewes were inseminated, however only seven conceived. The result was 13 lambs. Although the average was just short of a 200 percent lambing, one Polypay-Friesian cross ewe had quadruplets and a Suffolk ewe had triplets.
“The Suffolk cross lambs have a very Suffolk face and long legs,” Stimson said. “I don’t like those. I like the Polypay-Herdwick crosses. They have big broad chests, which are very Herdwick-like. I also have a lamb out of a Finn that looks very Herdwick. I’m going to keep him as my backup ram. We just sheared the ewes the other day. The Suffolk ewe that had triplets is really a bag of bones. The Polypay-Friesan cross that had quads looks great.”
Stimson attempted to import more semen from a second ram owned by Mary Bell. The USDA-required tests for blue tongue held things up so long the ram was out of season. Bell’s ram didn’t have blue tongue but that didn’t help Stimson.
The home of the Herdwicks is picturesque, but harsh and unforgiving to sheep that spend their winters out on the hills.
“They are very seasonal,” Stimson said. “I’m going to use ram number one on his daughters because I couldn’t get any semen from ram number two. Ram number one is a top-notch ram and I still have some of his semen. The lambs will not get bred back to him after this but I think it’s worth a try now because I might get something exceptional. However, I will be very critical of those babies.”
“This fall I’m going back to Lake Country to look at the Herdwicks,” Stimson continued. “I’ll try and go to the agricultural fair and look at what the traits are that make top Herdwicks. One of the ram lambs I have now we call Tank. He’s got this really big front end. That is very Herdwick. They are square.”
Another Herdwick trait is that they have the ability to survive on meager browse. They can also tolerate the rain and cold very well because they have a coarse outer fleece and a second undercoat. Stimson says that should be good for raising them on Oregon’s rainy Pacific coast. Stimson has heard that Herdwicks are somewhat resistant to parasites but says she needs to investigate that further. The wool makes extremely durable rugs and tweeds.
Meat quality is reputed to be very high. The fact that the queen of England dines on Herdwick lamb makes the claim credible. Stimson will butcher a lamb in the near future, but since they are crosses she won’t be able to make any dramatic claims. One of the most memorable meals of her life was dining on Herdwick lamb in a cottage in the Lake Country, however.
“The cook had prepared a wonderful lamb meal in an Aga cooker,” she said. “It was a boned leg of lamb with a stuffing of onions, celery, bread crumbs. It was better than any lamb I ever bought at the supermarket. The dessert was brambles, or blackberries, collected fresh from the fells.”
Cooks in Lake Country have been preparing Herdwick lamb for centuries. Their origin is unknown, but the most common theory is that early Norse settlers introduced them. It is suspected that they were brought to the region somewhere between the 10th and 11th centuries during the Viking invasions of western England. Another bit of local folklore is that they came from a wrecked Spanish Armada ship.
The Language of Herdwicks
This first cross Herdwick lamb, from a Polypay/Friesian cross ewe, already shows Herdwick traits
Regardless of their origin, their longevity in the Lake Country has resulted in cultural traditions and a unique vocabulary related to their care. For instance, a Herdwick lamb is said to heaf on the fell. Heafing, or always returning to the place of your birth, is one of the most significant characteristics of Herdwicks. A heafed ewe will not wander from its birthplace on the fell. The fell is the rugged pasture that is home to the Herdwicks. Even though Herdwicks heaf they traditionally receive an earmark unique to their owner. The mark is called a lug.
A twinter is a ewe approaching her second birthday. She will be a thrinter in her third year. Some twinters are bratted whereby a piece of clout (cloth) or a brat is sewn over their bottoms as a form of contraception. Yearling ewes tend to be small and since they lamb on the fell it is desirable to brat twinters. Herdwicks even inspired their own counting system.
Herdwick lambs are jet black, with white ears, when they are born. At one year old, when they are known as hoggs, their fleece becomes dark brown. After shearing they gradually turn gray.
Recently, that is to say in the last three hundred years, shepherds in the Lake Country have been training Border Collies to work Herdwicks. Now it is common to see the little dogs moving a flock of sheep among the stone walls of the green fells.
If you want to find out more about Herdwicks you can contact Linda Stimson via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. (For general background you can visit http://www.herdwick-sheep.com/) To learn a little about Border Collies and Herdwicks go to www.lakedistrictsheepdogexperience.co.uk?