Beatrix Potter followed the National Trust’s principles in managing her land, maintaining traditional buildings and farming methods, and understood the need to preserve rural culture as well as beautiful scenery. Together with her shepherd Tom Storey, Beatrix bred Herdwick sheep on her farms in the Lake District, which at that time were a threatened native breed. Due to their hardiness, Herdwick sheep are particularly suited to the Lake District. Beatrix said she was at her happiest when she was with her farm animals, and took an active part in caring for them, including searching the fells for lost sheep.
Beatrix won a number of prizes for her sheep at local shows, and became the first elected female President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association in 1943, a sign of the high regard in which she was held by the local farming community. When she died, she left fifteen farms, covering over 4,000 acres, to the National Trust, and according to her wishes all continue to graze Herdwick flocks.
Today, around 99% of Herdwick sheep are kept in commercial flocks in the central and western dales of the Lake District, with 95% within 14 miles of Coniston.
Herdwick sheep are born black, lightening to a dark brown colour after their first year, and then to grey after their first shearing.
Herdwick sheep wool is coarse and difficult to dye; it’s also an excellent insulator, so can be found in fireproofed sheets of loft insulation.
Herdwick sheep are a dual-purpose breed, as they produce both meat and wool.
Herdwick sheep winter on the fells between December and April, where they stay in the same small area or heaf.
Herdwick sheep are one of the most hardy British hill sheep breeds.
Beatrix Potter’s longest story, The Fairy Caravan, featured her own Herdwick sheep.
Beatrix is often hailed as a key figure in saving the Herdwick sheep from extinction.
In 2013, Lakeland Herdwick meat received a Protected Designation of Origin from the European Union.
The current world population of Herdwicks is around 60,000 breeding females, and an estimated 40,000 of these are on National Trust farms.
For more information about Beatrix Potter’s favourite breed, visit the Herdwick Sheep Breeder’s Association website.
You can read about the life of a Herdwick Shepherd in the words of James Rebanks, the latest of several generations to have tended flocks in the Lake District.