Beatrix Potter the farmer

Beatrix Potter at Keswick show

Beatrix Potter's lifelong fascination with animals saw her turn to farming as she settling into life in the Lake District. Learning from the best shepherds she could employ, her Herdwick sheep became some of the finest in the country and her pride and joy.

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

The Herdwick connection

Beatrix Potter was a lady of letters, her correspondence was wide ranging and far reaching, and certainly not limited to her work as an author and illustrator. Among 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.

Get up close to Herdwick sheep, an icon of the Lakes, on your walk
Herdwick sheep, Coniston, Cumbria
Get up close to Herdwick sheep, an icon of the Lakes, on your walk

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. At this time the sheep are out at their summer grazing amongst the bracken and rock of the farm's 'intake' land on the higher ground above Sawrey.

Gary Dixon and his family proudly care for Beatrix Potter's flock at Hill Top Farm.
Farmer Gary Dixon stands in his sheep pens on his farm Hill Top, former home of Beatrix Potter
Gary Dixon and his family proudly care for Beatrix Potter's flock at Hill Top Farm.

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 Herdwicks is around 60,000 breeding females. An estimated 40,000 of these are on National Trust farms, mostly purchased by Beatrix. A recent Sheep Trust report stated that 95% of all Herdwicks 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, which is now a icon synonymous with the Lake District. Our rangers, estate managers and farm tenants continue Beatrix Potter's work conserving the Lake District today.