THE LAKE DISTRICT – OUR LAND, OUR LIVES, OUR HERITAGE.

He talked of his spirit being lifted every time he visited the Lake District. This he said would be the same for the many who come to our county to appreciate the landscape and the views. The landscape, he said, was created by communities, a living breathing landscape where sheep roamed the fells. To him this agro- pastoral system was important, vital and must be protected.


Much of my family history is entwined with Cumbria and the Lake District. We can get back to the early 18th Century through a number of lines. Along the East Fellside of Cumbria and in the industrial villages of West Cumbria we’ve worked the ground above, as farmers and labourers, and we’ve worked the ground below as miners of iron ore and coal. One thing hasn’t changed too much in all that time. My forefathers, had they lifted their eyes, would have seen the same craggy fells, rolling Pennines, the green valleys and the deep lakes. For this land is our land. It’s where we belong. There are many more people just like me, with same ancestry.

Today I attended the opening of the Lake District UNESCO World Heritage Site on the shores of Derwentwater, at Keswick, one of Cumbria’s most popular tourist destinations. I had no idea what to expect other than a few scant details on an e- mailed invitation from the Lake District National Park Authority. What we did know was that His Royal Highness Prince Charles was to officially open the World Heritage Site accompanied by Michael Gove, Minister for the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs. This is the department that governs farming without actually mentioning it in the title. That is a pretty good clue as to how farming has been viewed and treated over the last couple of decades. Our food producers have been unloved, unappreciated and frankly down- beaten. The public perception has been one of greedy, subsidised farmers doing little for it and driving round in large expensive 4 x 4’s. Reality is far from perception. Food health scares, disease crises, years of dreadful farm gate prices and poor support from supermarkets and over- zealous, ill- informed government agencies have left their mark. Things must change. Perhaps that’s why so many farmers supported Brexit. A huge leap of faith for them, or a belief that things must be better for them?

In Keswick I bumped in to several farmers as we arrived together and went for coffee prior to the ceremony. I caught up with Joe and Hazel Relph who farmed at Yew Tree, Borrowdale before retirement. It was common knowledge that the Prince of Wales regularly used to stay at Yew Tree farm on his annual Lake District break although they would never talk about it. Will Cockbain was with us too. I’ve sold hundreds of sheep over the years for the Cockbain family at Cockermouth Auction and admired Will’s common sense approach to the politics of farming as he has fought on behalf of Lake District farmers at a high level. Then a great catch up with Brian and Jayne Knowles who farm the Southern reaches of the Shap Fells and are leading lights in the Rough Fell sheep breeding world.

Soon it was time to go outside. We walked on to Crow Park to await the special guests’ arrival. In bright spring sunshine I took a few deep breaths and savoured the view. Catbells seemed almost in our pockets. Beyond lay the Newlands fells and then the Grasmoor range. To my left the massive round of Skiddaw, once a huge volcanic plug three times the height it is now, and the namesake of my old school house. Friends all. Some of my forefathers knew these hills as I do today, walked them and mined them. This is part of my heritage.

Six months ago I stood in Crow Park with a group of volunteer farmers and their sheep as we met the general public, showed them the animals and explained what farming in Cumbria means and what it delivers. There were visitors from all over the world. Just talking to them for a few minutes, opened up a new horizon for them. Many were simply clueless about the landscape and its guardians. Several promised to look at farming in a whole new light. We went home tired yet quietly satisfied, wishing we could do more.

His Royal Highness Prince Charles
His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, opening the Lake District UNESCO World Heritage Site. March 2018. Photo’s courtesy of Ashnessfarm.co.uk

Back here once again, the sun continued to rise above the Helvellyn range, with a little warmth on the face against a cool spring day. What else could you expect in Cumbria in late March? Soon in a blaze of flashing lights, the royal cavalcade arrived. Hundreds of school children screamed and waved Union Jack flags as his Royal Highness took his seat. There were songs and dance performances from local children all of which was entirely fitting. Soon it was time for the unveiling of the New World Heritage Site. Prince Charles took to the microphone. His speech was frankly music to the ears of many rural Cumbrian people. He talked of his spirit being lifted every time he visited the Lake District. This he said would be the same for the many who come to our county to appreciate the landscape and the views. The landscape, he said, was created by communities, a living breathing landscape where sheep roamed the fells. To him this agro- pastoral system was important, vital and must be protected. It was a message of support for farmers, their businesses and their very real contribution to communities and this land – our land.

I found myself murmuring “here here” on more than one occasion, impressed by a man who clearly knows and understands the pressures rural communities in Cumbria face. These pressures are economic, social and environmental. The Princes words flew in the face of the ardent some would say misguided environmentalists who seek to rid the land of livestock, turn farmers in to park keepers and and in doing so, see the demise of local people living in established and real communities. His words drew rapturous applause from many local people.

All the while I stood next to or rather just in front of Anne Cornthwaite who farms at Ashness Farm just above the famous pack horse bridge a few miles south of Keswick on the road to Watendleth. Years previously, Joe Relph’s father Charlie farmed here. As a young auctioneer I actually sold implements in the field at Ashness at Charlie’s retirement sale. Later as manager of Cockermouth Auction, I always tried to help and support young farmers at the start of their careers. Anne’s son Henry used to bring sheep to the market. He was only a young lad, recently left school and now responsible for the marketing of their sheep. I wanted to give him confidence, so that he enjoyed his trip to the auction and would go home happy to his mum. “Ring me on a Tuesday” I used to say “and I’ll tell you what the trade will be like tomorrow”. This I continued to do until it was time for me to move to fresh pastures. As I said earlier, these are real people in real communities. We all have our part to play.

I asked Anne what she thought of Prince Charles speech. She said “rather uplifting for upland farmers like us”. She went on to say that she just hoped Mr Gove was listening and taking it all in. Many farmers were thinking the same thing. For he has a singularly important role to play in the future of rural landscapes going forward.

Soon we will be released from the common agricultural policy that has shaped our farming industry and regulated our land use over the last forty years or more. Now Mr Gove must decide what package should replace it. Farmers and environmentalists are vying for government support. The government has said it will support payments for public goods without explaining what public goods actually are. Those of an environmental bent will say this is about improving the natural environment, habitats, wildlife and clean water. This must come first. They rarely mention food production, or human communities. Farmers, particularly keen younger farmers are proud stockmen for whom the sheep and cattle often come first.

My personal belief is that the truly successful farmers of the future, particularly in the upland areas of Cumbria where farming and tourism go hand in hand, will be proud livestock producers that can also farm in an environmentally sound and productive way. As the world population continues to rise, the truly successful farmer will be one that produces great food and protects our rural landscapes better than ever before. It is a balanced land use policy for the future and it is my definition of public goods. I whole heartedly would want to see this encouraged and supported by both the government and the good people who visit our county, eat our lamb and beef and drink our milk. Support farmers, allow them to make a profit, reinvest in the farm and the community. Reward them for getting it right.

If Mr Gove and his successors get their bit right then Cumbria and the Lake District will remain our land, part of our lives and our heritage for generations to come. It’s not just about the Lake District though. The East Fellside and the western slopes of the Pennines where farming is so important must also be included in this. Here communities rely so much on farmers particularly in difficult times like the recent snow storms. Losing the farms would be a death knell. Many in The Yorkshire Dales will feel the same.

That is pretty much as His Royal Highness Prince Charles called it, on a bright spring morning on the shores of Derwentwater in 2018. The alternative is too bleak and too barren to contemplate.

KESWICK HERDWICK TUP FAIR

It is the autumn of 1995. I am 30 years of age and the new manager of Mitchell’s Auction Co Ltd. Mitchell’s operates the livestock mart in the town centre of Cockermouth, the market town bedecked by Wordworth’s daffodils each spring, and full of Lake District sheep in the autumn, brought to the market for sale from every valley in the county. The market company is one of the oldest auctions in the country having been created in 1873. As a boy at Fairfield junior school I could hear the auctioneers in full flow and so wanted to run across the car park to the auction. Now I am here managing the place!

There is one important sale that does not take place at Cockermouth Auction although it is always conducted by Mitchell’s. It is the famous Keswick Herdwick Tup Fair. For decades this event has taken place in the park lands above the Twa Dogs pub heading out of Keswick towards Penrith. With great care and precision, Herdwick breeders set up temporary pens in which to hold the annual crop of Herdwick rams, or tups as they are known in Cumbria. Not long after first- light, a procession of vehicles and trailers arrive at the field and the tups are expedited to the grass pens in preparation for the prize judging and eventual sale.

The manager of Cockermouth auction always conducts this sale. It is a long- standing tradition. This year for the first time, the sale is in my hands. I have been nervous for days leading up to the fair. I am new to the job, I don’t really know Herdwick sheep and I only know a few of the local vendors and potential buyers. It is a big responsibility but none of the Herdwick breeders seem to bat an eyelid. They all seem happy to have me selling at their main annual event of the year. Either that or they are good at hiding it!

I arrive early to show willing. It is typical tup fair weather, wet and windy. The clouds are lying low on the southern slopes of Skiddaw, towering above Keswick. Even the top of Latrigg is hidden from view. In front of me I observe a sea of green waterproofs, plastic leggings and wellies. There is an autumnal nip in the air and the leaves are falling from the trees and swirling in the breeze. The Lake District Herdwick farmers are impervious to the rain and cold wind. Winter hasn’t started for them.

Generally speaking the weather is always the same for the Tup Fair. The green landscape is broken only by the magnificent sight of the Herdwick Tups in the pens. There in front of me are 250 of the finest Herdwick males penned together side by side. It is a beautiful view. The older tups now in full bone and full bloom are pumped up like African lions. Striking in their familiar rudded – up (red) fleeces, another long- standing Herdwick tradition. They are testosterone filled pocket battle- ships ready to fight each other or ready to serve ewes, whichever opportunity happens first. The smell of the sheep, the wet wool and the rudd is all- pervading. It is the smell of autumn sheep sales.

It is getting towards tupping time when in just a few weeks’ time, the Herdwick ewes will be brought down from the high Lakeland fells and introduced to their new male friends. This is the only sale of registered Herdwick rams in the year. Each tup has been inspected by a panel of Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association members and has been judged to be physically correct and fit for sale.

Before me stands the cream of the crop, the pride and joy of each and every Herdwick Farmer who is selling. Many of the sheep will have been shown at various Lakeland agricultural shows throughout the year culminating late in the season at Eskdale and Wasdale. The Tup twinters often attract most interest. These are three year old sheep that are about to live through their second winter (twinters). They have not had the chance to serve any sheep being too young the previous autumn. As such they are untried and unproven. Some have massive potential and have been observed by potential buyers at various shows. Some have only been brought out to show at the very end of the season once the opposition has been assessed.

It is good fun watching potential buyers trying to get a good look at the sheep without appearing too interested. It doesn’t do for some buyers to broadcast that they like a certain tup. This can attract other potential buyers who respect the opinions of others and might even out- bid them at sale time. Herdwick tup buying can be a furtive business. Many times in later years I take a bid from a surreptitious hand flapping over the top of the wall, the owner of the hand trying hard not to be seen other bidders. More often than not everyone knows whose hand it is anyway. It is even more fun to knock the tup down to the hand and give the correct name out without even seeing the person. The thumbs up over the top of the wall was the sign that I had got it right!

But this is Keswick and today there are no walls. There isn’t even a rostrum. I have to stand on the ramp of a sheep trailer looking out over the sheep pens, with many bidders standing even further away behind the pens, and many farmers standing either side of the trailer. There is no microphone and I am expected to shout for about 5 hours which is how long it takes to sell 250 Herdwick Tups, one by one.

The judging has taken place, the prizes awarded and it is sale time. The rain is incessant and I stand on the trailer ramp with a shepherd’s crook which I use as a gavel, banging it down on the ramp to signify that a sale has been made. My other hand is trying to hold on to an umbrella, but it is a forlorn hope. There is water dripping in to my eyes and I am having to shout above the wind and rain to a large group of several hundred farmers all around me.

I have one asset by my side. Stan Edmondson from Seathwaite Farm is going to help me. He is a director of the auction company. He is also both a Herdwick legend and a Lake District legend. Anyone who has walked through the farm yard at Seathwaite heading for Scafell or Great Gable will have been greeted by Stan. His cheery wave and standard shout of “Aye- aye” will have been heard by thousands of Lake District visitors over the decades. He has a life- long experience of breeding and working with Herdwick sheep. He takes and interest in the people who visit his valley. “Where’ve you been and what have you seen?” is a phrase oft heard from Stan as people walk past.

Prior to the sale Stan tells me that he is going to stand with me and “keep me right”. This means he will point out sheep that he thinks may make a good price and to tell me the names of all the buyers who I don’t recognise. Stan knows every person on the field and probably their fathers and grandfathers before them. The problem is that Stan isn’t that good with names. Throughout the sale I am offered a number of suggestions as the hammer comes down. “Oh that’s what his nyam, thoo knaas, Johnny’s Grandson, thoo knaas him” and so on!

Stan is nearly 80 years old. His days as a world champion fell runner are long behind him, but he knows Herdwicks through and through. Despite being crippled with arthritis, he stands for 5 hours bent over his trusty shepherd crook, his eyes alive to the sheep in the ring, and the people bidding for them.

One by one The Herdwick tups are brought in to a little ring area in front of the auctioneer’s trailer. They charge about between me and the sheep pens. The vendors wave their arms frantically to try and make the tup show to attention. Occasionally they grab hold of the sheep to ensure it stands in the correct way, or to stop it jumping out of the ring. It’s a constant whirlwind of motion that I have to ignore as I urgently scan the crowd for bids.

I start the sale and manage to get quite a few sold but it is without doubt the hardest I have ever had to work. Herdwick Sheep Breeders are slow bidders. You cannot rush them. You cannot jump them up with big bids. You have to let each lot take its course. The grim reality is that no one actually knows how much a Herdwick tup is worth. Certain bloodlines are prized and there is only a limited gene pool within the breed. Tried and tested aged tups can reach a decent price. Young twinter tups of good potential can make a few thousand pounds. It depends on the breeding and of course the conformation.

Auctioneers pride themselves on stocksmanship and knowing the true value of the stock they sell.  A Herdwick auctioneer must accept that neither he nor many of the Herdwick shepherds have much of clue as to what the sheep are worth. Nobody minds how low you start, so you just keep taking the bids until they cease. At that point the stick is banged down on the ramp, the hammer has fallen and the sale is made.

In time as I gain experience, I learn to do the exact opposite of many top quality pedigree auctioneers that I have watched and admired. For in other breed circles the auctioneer judges the animal and the people bidding for them. If circumstances allow, they go big from the start, taking large bids in the knowledge that certain buyers will go with them and maybe even new records will be created. When I sell Herdwick tups, I take smaller bids as the lot progresses. This way I can often eek out an extra 500 guineas beyond where I might be were I taking much bigger bids. It takes longer but in time record prices will be broken using just this method.

I’ve been selling or rather shouting for over 4 hours without a break. In that time I have only sold 200 tups, but that is normal. Old Stan has been doing his best with the names. It is also a tradition in Lakeland to sometimes give the name of the farm rather than the farmer. So I am knocking sheep down to Nook Farm, Brotherilkeld, Troutbeck Park, Fell Foot and many more famous Lakeland farms. Often I have no idea who actually farms there. In time, I will grow to know each and every one of them. Even better, the course of my work as a Lakeland auctioneer will take me to so many of these farms on a regular basis. Time and again I am made welcome, and made to feel like I am part of the Herdwick world. So often I travel over the famous mountain passes of Lakeland on my way home from visiting Lake District farms. Always I feel I am blessed to do this for a job, and get paid for it.

Stan is also good at pointing out the sheep he likes. “This might mek a bit”. He is generally right, but not always! Eventually we are down to a handful tups left to sell.  A little Herdwick tup lamb comes in to the ring. Tup lambs are rarely sold, being given the chance to grow in to their second winter and sold as a twinter. This little lamb is only a few months old and is striking in that is jet black all over. Herdwick lambs are born very dark or even black. Their fleeces lighten with age. This little ball of fluff really is jet black.

It has been bred by another legendary breeder, Joe Folder now residing near Cockermouth. Stan lights up. “Ah now I like this” he says. “Set it off at 400 guineas”.

“What?” I am incredulous. It is a tiny little ball of fluff. “Set it off at 400 guineas” he repeats. Rather non- plussed I set the bidding off at 400 guineas. After one minute of scanning the crowd and constantly repeating “400 guineas, I’ve 400 bid, any more this time”. I turn to Stan and quietly apologise. “Sorry old lad, no one is bidding”

“Nay” he says “ah thowt it would mek all of that”. So I drop down to 50 guineas and immediately there is interest. 5 minutes later the bids have been coming in thick and fast. Finally with a last shout “all done? Last chance, hammers up, goes this time”…. The Herdwick tup lamb is sold for 400 guineas. Stan is triumphant. He thumps his shepherds crook on the trailer door “there thoo is” he beams “I telt tha”.

Joe Folder, smiles and winks at me. It is a sign of approval and we become friends from that day forward. The buyer of the lamb is non- other than Jean Wilson, a lady feted within the Herdwick world and far beyond. Jean Wilson is synonymous with Herdwick Sheep. Her rock by her side is her husband Derek. Years later Derek tells me that “Jean was bred to breed Herdwicks”. It is in her blood. She will travel the world to promote Herdwicks and her wise council is sought by many a young breeder starting their Herdwick career.

Like so many of the old school breeders, her knowledge of the Herdwick sheep and her skills are all encompassing. Meet Jean at any show or sale, and she will know the history and breeding of not only all of her own sheep but probably most of the other farmers sheep too.

Years later I was required to inspect and value many of Jeans best sheep and also the sheep of many other Herdwick Breeders in the foot and mouth epidemic of 20011. This was without doubt the hardest, most upsetting, soul- destroying job I was ever asked to undertake. For in 2001 these sheep were wintered away from home on the fertile soils of the Solway plain on the northern shores of Cumbria. Jean and so many other farmers could never visit those sheep or see them again for foot and mouth disease was raging in north Cumbria and the government  deemed that the sheep, healthy or not, could never return home and worse still, had to die.

The sorrow in having to speak to Jean after the deed was done will stay with me forever. Even then through the tears and upset, she was able to tell me which sheep I had inspected, their breeding, their bloodlines and their value to her which far outweighed the monetary valuation I had placed upon them. Later that night I cried my own tears behind closed doors. Tears for Jean and all the other breeders and for the sheep themselves most of which were not diseased, but slaughtered in perfect health. What joy to see Jean and so many other Herdwick breeders rise again although it has taken a long time and the pain of those times will never be forgotten.

Recently while speaking at a farmer’s dinner I told the tale of the little jet black tup lamb. I had forgotten that Jean had bought it and was telling the story simply to mention Stan’s instruction to “set it off at 400” and how I eventually got to the price.

As I started to tell the tale. Derek Wilson who was in the audience with Jean, stood up and stopped me. “Do you remember who bought that lamb” asked Derek?

“Err no” I replied.

“It was Jean and when she got home with that laal black thing I bollocked her for bringing it back”

Jean immediately stood up. Leaning backwards with her eyes almost closed as Jean does, she came right back at Derek “ah but you’ll hev til admit” she said to her husband, “eventually he did make a fair decent tup”. Derek had to agree and of course Jeans idea of a decent tup is normally a pretty good recommendation! 22 years had gone by since Jean purchased the little jet black lamb but she remembered the sale as much as I did. “There was just summat aboot him I rather liked” she would tell me later.

So my first ever Herdwick Tup Fair in Keswick is over. I have survived. It even stopped raining and I was able to remove my waterproof jacket. The business is concluded, tups loaded into trailers or just left in the pens, and everyone retires to the Twa Dogs Inn. I sit with Geoff Edmondson from Langdale and we have a pint of Jennings Beer. Geoff sits back in a relaxed position with his rudded waterproof leggings shoved down over his wellies to protect the pub décor. He takes a sup then folds his hands across his chest. “Well Adam Lad, do you think you were getting the hang of it”. “I didn’t think I did too badly for a first go Geoff”. He laughs. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been among Herdwicks all my life and I’m still learning the bloody job… like”

Soon the traditional singing has brought the bar to life. Glen Wilkinson from Tilberthwaite whose flocks run across the Coniston fells, has his thumbs shoved firmly down in the pocket of his jeans. His head is cocked to one side, cheeks ruddy from the warm glow of the fire. Eyes closed in concentration he breaks into a bass baritone version of “Black Velvet Band”. We all sing the chorus in raucous fashion. Then David Bland from West Head stands up. His sheep run high up along the Helvellyn range. He takes a deep breath and then word perfectly sings “Old Shep”, in a version as good as the King himself. Some of the younger farmers cajole Syd Hardisty from How Hall on the shores of Ennerdale. “Come on Syd, give us Jobby Teasdale’s Warlick!” Syd stands up and his own unique rambling style, half sings and half recites his famous party piece.

I am relaxing in the warm glow as day turns to dark and thinking to myself, “This is great but if I’m doing this sale again next year, I’d like to have it in Cockermouth auction”!

The following year after some hard work on my part I have persuaded the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association to allow Keswick Tup Fair to be held in Cockermouth Auction for the first time ever. The older breeders who have been to Keswick come rain or shine for decades are unhappy. Tradition is tradition. Some of the younger breeders and one or two influential Herdwick Council members have backed me and are prepared to give it a go. That is another story!