In early October there is a prize show and sale of Herdwick draft ewes at Cockermouth Auction, a market town on the northern edge of the Lake District. The sale has taken place here for over a century. Draft ewes are older sheep that are perhaps no longer fit enough to survive a further winter on the fell. So they are sold to lowland shepherds where conditions may be less harsh. The ewes may go on producing lambs for several more years away from the fell.
Many years ago in the old Cockermouth town centre market, not long after I had become the market manager and therefore the Herdwick Sheep Breeders official auctioneer, Joe Folder from Cockermouth produced a fantastic pen of ten ewes, some of the biggest and best in the market. He presented them in the prize show. They were to compete against some equally magnificent fell sheep from top Lakeland breeders from every corner of Cumbria.
Joe had spent a lifetime in the Herdwick breed, working hard fell farms across Cumbria. For many years he was a National Trust tenant at Baskell farm in the hills above the Duddon Valley. In his later years he had retired to Cockermouth but his passion for Herdwicks remained undiminished. He continued to breed superb sheep none of which would live on high fells. This meant that his sheep were always bigger than many traditional fell- going ewes. This was not in any way a fault, but simply a product of their environment, living and breeding in fields around Cockermouth and the Vale of Lorton. His sheep were always sought after and sold well.
The show judge picked out two pens to contest the draft ewe championship. Side by side stood Joe’s sheep and a lovely pen of draft fell ewes from Gordon Tyson, Troutbeck Park. Standing on the lower slopes of Kirkstone Pass, the farm was purchased by Mrs Heelis (Beatrix Potter) in 1923 to prevent it being developed thereby preserving it as a working sheep farm which was her avowed intent. She did this by personally taking the farm in- hand and establishing a celebrated flock of Herdwick sheep. The sheep grazed to the top of High Street at around 2,700 feet and still do to this day.
After her death in 1943, Mrs Heelis gifted a total of 14 farms covering 4,000 acres including Troutbeck Park, to the National Trust. She did this to ensure that her will would be met and the farms remain viable working holdings for future generations. Gordon Tyson, farmed the sheep for many years and continued to improve a fine flock of sheep until he passed away in 2015. The sheep he brought to Cockermouth market had spent every winter living on the high fells above the farm. Now it was time for them to leave the fell and live the rest of their lives on lower pastures.
Both pens of sheep looked beautiful in the market, fleeces rudded- up along their backs with gleaming white faces in contrast to the grey- blue of the coat below the “rudd”. The Judge asked me how I wanted him to assess the sheep. Joe’s sheep had a size and condition that the fell sheep as strong and as good as they were, simply could not achieve. Stupidly, I said that he should just pick the best pen of draft sheep. I thought I was being diplomatic. The judge awarded the championship to the Troutbeck Park fell sheep and then apologised to Joe because he thought he had the strongest sheep. The judge quoted what I said and explained to Joe why his sheep were placed second. Joe just smiled and shook his hand.
Later in the bar, long after the sale was over, Joe lay his wizened old hand firmly on my forearm. He was approaching 80 years of age but his grip was still like iron. “Young man” he whispered in my ear, using his other hand to remove the pipe from his mouth “You should have just said nowt”. He smiled and released his grip. His point was made and he was quite right. I learned a valuable lesson.
Joe became a friend after that and would rarely miss a Herdwick Sale and the subsequent gathering of shepherds in the bar, right up to the end of his life. In the happy glow of the auction bar following the Herdwick sales, we would enjoy a drink and some good craic above the singing and the raucous laughter of Cumbrian fell farmers, letting their hair down and enjoying the end of the sale season before hunkering down for a long winter often in semi- isolation deep within the Lakeland’s frozen valleys.
I would go on each year for many years to sell those super Troutbeck Park draft ewes, which had it not been for Mrs Heelis, probably would not have been there. Now once again we look to an uncertain future. If we do not find some balance to allow farmers to work the land, farm the fells sensibly and make a living then there may be no future at all.
How important then that we bring the young people through, to learn the fell craft, preserve the sheep flocks and manage our Lake District landscapes. We must persuade them and give them confidence that they have a future in shepherding. Their role is vital not just to Lakeland but every upland area in the country. Farmers are the lifeblood of many rural communities. Their work shapes the landscape for all to enjoy. They are the true conserver’s of the countryside. The days of over- grazing the fells are gone. Now farmers look to balance careful flock management with preserving habitats and protecting fresh water supplies to a greater extent than ever before. It is called stewardship. Tourists are welcomed for they too are an essential and important part of the fabric of the Lake District.
Balance is the key word in all of this. When the correct balance is finally achieved, we will have found a way to allow Lake District Farmers to farm sustainably and with some profit to re- invest, manage the countryside and cater for the visitors, almost 20 million of them annually, most of whom are thrilled to see proper sheep wintering on the hills that they were bred to graze. This includes the Troutbeck Park flock and so many more Lakeland Farms. Famous flocks that some would seek to destroy with unctuous talk of re- wilding and introducing lynx in their place. Madness and utter folly in an already green and pleasant land.
National Trust farms have been breeding grounds not only of fine Cumbrian fell flocks, but also successive generations of young farmers, starting their own careers, getting a first step on the ladder, learning unique skills and local knowledge often from previous tenants in order to survive and farm in Lakeland. Many farmers like Joe and Gordon chose to stay on and enjoy long and successful tenancies, happy in their work.
Today’s farm children, long after our generation has gone, will still be selling at Herdwick sales, gathering at shepherds meets and shows, singing songs and enjoying a drink or two in the bar with the proud auctioneer, whoever he or she may be. We must never let this die. How important then that landlords like the National Trust and others never lose sight of the fact, that their farms are a vital weave in the fabric of Lake District farming life, it’s heritage, history and as importantly, it’s future.
I’m sure Beatrix Potter and possibly many of today’s Lakeland tenant farmers would agree. Perhaps now is the time to say something, rather than follow old Joe’s advice to “just say nowt”!