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Farming in the Lake District

Herdwick sheep grazing in fields next to Tarn Hows on a summer's day
Herdwick grazing near Tarn Hows in Coniston | © National Trust Images / Annapurna Mellor

The Lake District's vast mountainous terrain is home to a long tradition of fell farming which has helped shape its iconic landscape. Here, the National Trust is proud to look after a large quantity of this historic farmland including portions of common land and 55 flocks of Herdwick sheep. Together with farm tenants and commons rights holders, we are working to create a more resilient landscape which will benefit both wildlife and farming. Learn more about how we are looking after nature and keeping traditional farming methods alive here.

The farming calendar

The traditional farming calendar here begins in November when after gathering sheep off the fells, the ewes are separated and matched to their ideal tups. This is tupping time when you will see handsome larger Herdwick tups, some sporting impressive, curved horns, strutting their stuff. When January comes around, the ewes are often scanned to find out how many lambs are expected in the spring and whether the mothers are carrying twins or even triplets. Before they are put back to the fell, they are tagged with "smit marks" or brightly coloured markings on their flanks to help identify the flock. Lambing season starts in early April and goes on into May. The ewes are brought down and closely watched as they start to give birth. This is a busy and stressful time on the farm as sheep are born all hours of the day and night. Some ewes don't take to mothering and lambs are "adopted" to mothers with enough milk to share.

Once the lambs are big enough, the flock is sent back up to the fells to graze and teach the lambs which land is theirs. Lambs born as twins however stay on the inbye; the more fertile and sheltered land in the valley closer to the farm buildings. In July and August, the farmers are busy with haymaking, cutting the fields and bailing for upcoming winter. From late August into the autumn months the best tups and ewes are picked out to be brought to local farm shows where you will also find fresh produce and handicrafts on offer. These are a great day out for the whole family and the perfect way to show support for local farmers.

Two Herdwick sheep sitting in the grass with Wastwater and the surrounding mountains in the background on a spring day
Two Herdwick sheep by Wastwater in Wasdale | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Herdwick sheep

The difficult upland terrain here combined with the wet and windy weather makes farming a particular challenge in the Lake District. With little arable land or lowland fields for raising cows other than the hardiest breeds, the farmers here have a long tradition of shepherding hefted flocks of hardy sheep, namely the Herdwick. These sweet faced, wiry coated animals have become synonymous with the Lake District landscape and were beloved by Beatrix Potter who farmed them. They are a distinctive stocky, double-coated breed with grey fleeces and white faces and legs. Born black, they slowly lighten as they age. When they are into their second year and still have a darker brownish torso with white smiling faces, they are called "hoggs".

The process of hefting these sheep has been going on for generations, with mother's showing their lambs not to stray off a particular territory which can include common land where many flocks share grazing space. Many of the farms we look after have such landlord flocks which remain with the farm. Some of the Herdwicks belonging to the family at Hill Top are descendants of Beatrix Potter's own flock and we hope to see them grazing their ancestral lands for years to come.

Common land

A centuries old practice, common land traditionally sustained the poorest people in rural communities along with yeoman farmers who owned no land of their own, providing them with a source of wood, bracken for bedding and pasture for livestock. Today, this land management system is under threat with just 3% of England left as Common Land. It still has a stronghold in the Lake District however, consisting of 30% of the land here. Commoning involves a group of farmers who have "commoners rights" to graze their animals on a shared piece of land without fences or boundaries between them. Hefted sheep stay on their patch through flock memory passed down through the generations. The land itself is owned by a an individual, a charity, utility company or a combination but is always open access land.

When sustainably managed, Common Land has helped ensure the survival of ancient monuments and vital habitat for wildlife so it isn't surprising that 82% of commons are in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Two belted Galloway cows sitting in green vegetation looking towards the camera
Belted Galloways | © National Trust Images / Fiona Scully

Nature friendly farming

As part of our work for nature, we’ve been working with farmers to assess the health of the land in our care while working towards increasing soil health, habitat and biodiversity. We're finding the right balance of grazing with a variety of traditional livestock including Galloway cows, creating woodland pastures, allowing space for wetlands, putting in edible hedgerows in ways to help both wildlife and farming to flourish. With climate change hitting hard in the lake district and more droughts and floods affecting all those who live and work here, it is more important than ever to build resilience into the land while producing healthy local produce.

It's great to see so many farmers restoring hedgerows in the Lake District landscape. These hedges, which replace ones that have been lost over time, provide food and shelter for wildlife and livestock. There are a range of grants available for farmers to restore hedges, and volunteers often give their time to help plant them on farms

A quote by Andrea MeanwellNational Trust Lakes Future Farming Partnerships Manager

Bringing back traditional hedgerows

Hedgerows are an integral feature of the British countryside, and each county has it's specific tradition when it comes to the chosen species of trees and bushes as well as its own style of hedge laying. Used by farmers as living fences, they also provide shelter from the elements and an added source of nutrients for livestock. Unfortunately, the UK's hedgerows have declined by half since the second world war and the National Trust are working hard to reverse that trend.

In the Lake District, this means surveying our existing hedges, continuing with traditional hedge laying practices and planting more blossom rich or "edible" hedges on farmland and beyond. Recognizing the benefits to both nature and their livestock, these hedges are often put in place by request of the local farm tenants

The Countryside Code

Farming in the Lake District can be very rewarding but it is also hard work, especially when visitors don't realise the impact their actions can have on a farmer's livelihood.

You can help by making sure to always follow the Countryside Code and never parking in front of gates, leaving gates as you found them, always taking your litter with you and driving carefully around tractors.

It is especially important to always keep your dogs under close control and on leads around livestock. This is especially important from January through until after lambing when a stressful encounter can cause a sheep to miscarry and where an attack can cause trauma, infection and death. Dogs must also be kept on a lead anywhere on open access land during nesting bird season to protect our wildlife.

Sustainable farming landscape restoration projects

Across the Lake District, farmers are taking part in landscape recovery projects and helping bring back traditional nature friendly practices. Take a look at just some of the exciting things here.

Two calves grazing in a field at Ashness Farm in Borrowdale with views down to Derwent Water
Calves and sheep grazing at Ashness Farm in Borrowdale | © Melinda Gilhen-Baker

Ashness farm in Borrowdale

Anne at Ashness farm in Borrowdale has been working the land for over a decade, making space for nature and watching her flock of Herdwick sheep and Belted Galloway cattle flourish. She has created wetland habitat by having ponds dug in and more food for pollinators with new edible hedges and orchards being planted. Her Belted Galloways browse in the woodland pastures in Ashness wood and are part of the management of the temperate rainforest which we are hoping to soon have declared as a National Nature Reserve. Visit their website to learn more about the farm or come and see first hand by booking your next holiday at Ashness B&B.

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A visitor carrying a backpack and walking along a footpath at Divis and the Black Mountain with stone walls either side, the countryside visible in the background.

Follow the Countryside Code 

Help to look after National Trust places by observing a few simple guidelines during your visit and following the Countryside Code.


(Proposed) Borrowdale Rainforest National Nature Reserve 

Find out more about the work we are doing to look after the Borrowdale Temporate Rainforest and why we are working with Natural England to make this area a new National Nature Reserve.

Hawthorn in flower at Stockbridge Down, Hampshire
Press release
Press release

Hedgerow study using artificial intelligence to help National Trust bring back its ‘blooming boundaries’ 

The National Trust is publishing research into the changes in hedgerows and density on its land in England and Wales since the start of the 20th Century, which will help inform its ambition for future conservation projects and aid plans to establish 4 million blossoming trees by 2030.

Close-up of two Herdwick sheep on a fellside in Wasdale

Foundation for Commons Land and the Upland Commons Project 

Did you know that 30% of the Lake District is Common Land? With only 3% of England still classed as commons, we are proud that this traditional land management practice still has a stronghold here. Click here to learn more about the Upland Commons Project, the history of commoning and what we are doing to make sure these important stretches of land continue to support people, livestock and wildlife as they have done for centuries.