4 April 2016

A Spring in their step

Fell farming has shaped the landscape of the Lake District for thousands of years using a system that has remained relatively unchanged. At the most basic level the fell farming year follows a cyclical pattern of sending stock off to the high fell, and gathering them back down for lambing in the spring and tupping time in the autumn. This system enables farmers to make best use of the limited growth that the vegetation puts on during the warmer months; it is no coincidence that the lambs are born in the spring as we are hopeful for some warmer weather and the grass will start to grow.

Part of the Boon Crag flock, with Holme Fell in the background
At the moment the ewes will have been bought down from the fell and will be held in the inbye fields. These are the fields in the valley bottom which are enclosed by the characteristic drystone walls where the ewes will remain until they have lambed, which for most fell flocks happens between mid-April to mid-May. Ewes with single lambs are sent back to the fell in May and those with doubles kept in the inbye until clipping time in July after which they are also sent to the fell. As you have probably guessed this is however only the tip of the ice berg …

Fell breeds are particularly nimble and hardy; the grass is always greener on the other side!
One of the aspects of fell farming that always amazes me is how the farmer staggers their lambs to be born over the period of around a month. Whilst lambing remains one of the busiest times of the year for any farmer, this makes the onerous task slightly more manageable. This is actually done way back in October and November when the tups are put in the field with the ewes.

Each tup is fitted with a ‘raddle’, which is comprised of a strap that holds a block of paint on the chest of the tup. During the act, this colour is transferred to the ewes back. Sheep are in season for a 17 day cycle, and the colour of the raddle is changed for every cycle, starting lighter and getting progressively darker, for example yellow, red then blue. Not only does the changing of the colour enable the farmer to predict the lambing date, but also to check that the tup is working correctly and to check that the ewe is cycling. All being well 152 days later little black lambs will start to appear in the fields!

Beatrix Potter played a pivotal role in ensuring the survival of the Herdwick breed by buying farms and bequeathing them to the National Trust. Here at the South Lakes property she left 14 farms, some of which I am fortunate enough to spend most of my days on fixing, building and carrying out conservation tasks. I have now been living in the Lake District for just over a year and during that time I have only began to scratch the surface when it comes to learning about fell farming; and I have only imparted a small part of my limited knowledge in the blog! Lambing is but one aspect of the fell farming year, let alone tupping, clipping, hay making, the relationship with sheep dogs and the myriad of other tasks that a farmer carries out to care for his stock. If you find fell farming as interesting as I do then come along to Wray Castle on the 2nd and 4th of June to meet one of our tenant farmers and some of his stock; he’ll be there to answer all your questions!

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