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An Ancient Lakelander, The Herdwick

Arthur Evans, retired schoolteacher, and Jim Melville's son-in-law, has been writing historical and natural history articles since 1948 for the NW Evening Mail and for The Westmorland Gazette, since 1981. He has also written four books relating to the Lake District. Like Bill Rollinson who Arthur found 'a delightful man'. He was fascinated with all things Norse and their connections and eventual influence within the county, much of which still permeates many facets of Cumbria. Arthur shared Bill's interest, marvelled at his enthusiasm and was grateful for his friendship.

The terrible outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 resulted in the slaughter of many thousands of sheep and cattle. It certainly threatened the continued existence of a breed of sheep unique to the Lake District. This is the Herdwick, a tough, goat-like animal of unknown but undeniably ancient origin and affiliation; a breed which is certainly the oldest species of farm animal to appear in the Lake District.

The first record of the name that I can find dates from the early 16th century -though this refers to an area - a "Herdwick" - a land area holding a flock of sheep; a title soon transferred to a specific breed. This tough, hairy-woolled goat-like animal is able to survive on the toughest herbage. Indeed, within living memory it was a near - permanent resident on fell and mountain side the year round, but shifted from their native "heaf on higher land briefly no more than a few times a year. Pregnant ewes were brought down onto this gentler, softer ground near the homestead to lamb, returned later in the year to be clipped and "salved" - an ancient protection against the attack of ravaging blow flies; a practice now replaced by controversial "dipping". After this, the animals are then "pop-marked" to indicate ownership (formerly by greasy "reddle" - red, haematitic clay - now by modern fast dyes). Towards the "backend" - autumn -the ewes return to be serviced by a chosen "tup", the Lakeland name for a ram.

Some modern Herdwick, like the animals of old, still retain a devotion to their patch of home ground called the "heaf. Indeed, such animals formed a lifelong attachment to a specific area. There are many examples of this in animals sold and transferred elsewhere - sometimes many miles away - returning unerringly to former home ground, the "heaf. Modern practice has altered much of this, however, with the animals being transferred to better (and softer) grazing, often on land near the sea or within some of the more sheltered Lakeland valleys.

Herdwicks were once unique to the Lakeland fells. Now, Yorkshire Swaledales, Westmerian Rough Fells and other similar hardy breeds are replacing the indigenous Herdwick. One very popular breed in this group is now the Welsh Mountain Black, though to date they seem to be held only on milder slopes or within the better valleys. On the mountain slopes proper, the Herdwicks are yet the hardiest, but their numbers diminish year by year. Herdwick meat is reputedly the sweetest, but the tough, wiry wool is proving to be virtually unsaleable these days. Much of the unsold 2000 clip was burnt in sheer despair. Which is a great pity for this wiry, tough material is almost unique. It may be harsh indeed to more delicate skins, but it is virtually waterproof, warming, and very hard wearing indeed. A few brave pioneers battle on with it, but theirs is a difficult job. This wool makes tough, hard-wearing carpets and blankets, but is very difficult to dye - which creates a great limit to sales. Yet the loss of every Herdwick to Lakeland means the loss of another piece of history. Not only is this tough goat-like animal unique to the area, but it is  probably one of the most ancient inhabitants of the area.

Where did it originate? There is a wild story of Spanish origin; the first Lakeland animals supposedly swimming clear of a wrecked Spanish Armada vessel. Others insist on a Viking origin - again with animals landing from a ship, this time a Norse longboat - a tubby "drakar" - to swim ashore in West Cumberland - perhaps at ancient Ravenglass. Other folk suggest prehistoric origin, the animals arriving here with the first Neolithic farmers and settlers four thousand and more years ago. A few suggest French origins, the breed introduced and developed by incoming Cistercian monks. A few folk declare older Spanish connection. No one knows the truth, but certainly the coarse-woven "habits" - the harsh clothing - of Furness Abbey monks and dependent local peasants was made of this hard-wearing material. Almost in living memory more than one farm labourer was made to wear the "harden sark" -the new woollen shirt - of his master and thus soften it for the farmer's future use.

One peculiarity (amongst many others) attached to the Herdwick breed is the use of "Celtic counting" by their shepherds. Each major Lakeland valley has its own version, but all of them show some affinity with the Old Welsh language of long ago. Welsh numerals, which also show some affinity with the "Celtic counting" up to ten - however slight. They are as follows:

Modern Welsh.

1: Un                   2: dauordwy        3: tri or tair  4: pedwar or pedar  5: pump     

6: chwech            7: saith               8: wyth        9: naw                       10:deg

Compare these numbers with the

Ancient Welsh:

1: un          2: dou         3: tri           4: petuar      5: pimp   

6:chwech   7:seith        8: wyth       9: nau          10: dec

And with the Coniston version of the

"Celtic counting":

1: Yan         2: Taen       3: Tedderte       4: Medderte              5: Pimp

6: Haata     7: Slaata     8: Lowra             9: Downa               10: Dick.

Modern Cumbria covers much of the area once held by the "Cimri" - the "Compatriots" of Welsh kinsman further south. This was in a time long before the arrival of Anglo-Saxon, Norseman, or Norman invader in the area. Was this also the time of the original Herdwick sheep?


Did you swim from splintered drakar

Hard aground on Cumbrian sand?

Or came you from Armada's galleon

Stove-in, wrecked, on Bootle's strand?

Perhaps you walked with cowled Cistercians?*

Bleating over new-grazed fells?

Or did you come with Stone Age trader?

By rings of stone? Or pagan wells?

Did you know the Beltane bonfires

Or Druids' oak, or Celtic grove?

Who first clipped that wiry grey wool?

And who was he who first it wove?

Who were they who gave you number

Yan and twan, and tethera, dik?

Who called you firstly, tup, or twinter

And herded you with crooked stick?

Who marked your fleece with greasy crimson,

Named you "gimmer", "yow", or "hogg"?

Who took you first upon the mountains,

By whistle, voice, and eager dog?

What, exactly, is your lineage?

Who bred you? Tough, and white of face?

Who brought you here, O Cumbrian Herdwick?

Are you the last of ancient race?

A.L Evans.

Where did they originate? And when?

Cumbria, particularly on regions of mountain and fell. There is a folktale that the first Herdwicks scrambled ashore from either Viking drakar or Spanish Armada galleon somewhere between Bootle and Ravenglass. The breed may be much older than either story suggests, though a Norse origin is suggested by some. Another possibility is that Neolithic farmers Ca. 4000 years ago introduced it

Another clue is that the old counting method mentioned in the poem is probably Celtic in origin - perhaps even prehistoric?

*Certainly Herdwick sheep and wool created much of Furness Abbey's wealth.

Arthur Evans being presented with a watch in 2001, after completing nearly 50 years of writing articles for the Evening Mail. His wife Jean is on his left, holding a bouquet. The Editor, Steve Brauner is on his right.