Beatrix Potter and Herdwick sheep

Herdwick sheep at Yew Tree Farm © V Corbett

Herdwick sheep at Yew Tree Farm

The Herdwick connection

Beatrix Potter (or Mrs Heelis as she became, following her marriage to local solicitor William Heelis) was very committed to the conservation of Herdwick sheep.

She had her own Herdwick flock and and was keen to breed the best animals. Beatrix succeeded in this, winning awards at local agricultural shows and the respect of local Lake District farmers.

Amongst Beatrix Potter's published letters there is one from 1931 in draft form to an editor (presumably of a farming periodical). It concerns the death of a celebrated Championship-winning Herdwick ram called 'Saddleback Wedgewood' who had sadly passed away while on loan to Hill Top Farm. Here he had been busy helping to improve Beatrix's future Herdwick flock.

Hill Top and the Herdwick flock today

Today the tenant at Hill Top Farm prides himself on maintaining a flock of quality Herdwick sheep. The farm is not actually classed as a fell farm because it has no access to any grazing on the open fell and so has no sheep which are 'hefted', ie flocks with generational knowledge of their own territory on the fell passed down from mother to lamb.

Hill Top is a working farm and during the summer months you are unlikely to see Herdwick whilst visiting there. At this time the sheep are out at their summer grazing amongst the bracken and rock of the farms 'intake' land on the higher ground above Sawrey.

Beatrix would surely agree that this is where they were bred to be, rather than being kept around Hill Top House and that the sheep at Hill Top are a credit to the farmer.

If you want to see Herdwick sheep, look out for them on the higher fells in summer and the fields in the valley bottoms in spring.

The Herdwick and conservation

The current world population of Herdwick's is around 60,000 breeding females. An estimated 40,000 of these are on National Trust farms, and a recent Sheep Trust report stated that 95% of all Herdwick's are to be found within 14 miles (23km) of Coniston.

By helping to preserve important Lake District farms from unsuitable development in the early part of the 20th century, Beatrix Potter was able to play a major role in the conservation of this special breed.

NB: The letter mentioned above can be seen in the book 'Beatrix Potter's letters' selected by Judy Taylor and published by Frederick Warne. It is available from Hill Top shop.