British Hardy Hill Sheep
Almost no climate is too harsh for the sheep that graze on the inhospitable slopes of our hills and mountains. These tough native breeds can withstand driving rain and icy winds, and may even survive in deep snow drifts for several days.
The hill sheep’s year begins in autumn, when the ewes and rams are prepared for mating. Only sheep which are fit and healthy are used for breeding. They are dipped and drenched (given medicine) to remove external and internal parasites, and their hooves are trimmed. Each ram runs with between 60 and 100 ewes.
Mating is arranged to fit in with the best time for lambing, which coincides with the growth of grass in the spring. In most areas, mating starts in mid-November so that the lambs are born in April and the beginning of May. The gestation period in sheep is almost five months. During the winter the pregnant ewes need careful attention. For most of the time, they forage for themselves, even digging through a light snow cover to graze the coarse grass and tips of heather below. In heavier snowfalls, the shepherd provides hay, and he gives sheep in late pregnancy a higher-energy feed to ensure that they have adequate nutrition.
Before the lambs are due to be born, the ewes are brought into smaller pastures or fields near the homestead. Here they can be watched more closely and any ewe that has difficulty giving birth to her lamb can be given immediate assistance. Lambs are normally born with the nose and forefeet emerging first. Sometimes the lamb is in the wrong position and sometimes it is too large, but even in these cases the experienced shepherd usually succeeds in delivering a live lamb.
Hill ewes generally give birth to only one lamb each year, but in some cases twins are born and they are at greater risk. Twins are smaller and thinner than single lambs and are less able to tolerate the cold, wet climate of April in the hills. In addition, the ewe may have insufficient milk for two lambs and her instinct may be to desert one so that the other survives. Finally, even an aggressive hill ewe has difficulty in defending two lambs against the cunning attack of predators such as the fox. For these reasons, most hill shepherds are satisfied with one healthy lamb for each ewe.
Summer is a pleasant time on the mountain grazing. With the warmth of the sun on their backs, the lambs grow quickly, and demonstrate their health and energy in endless races and games.
In June or July, the ewes no longer need the protection of their fleeces against the cold and are ready for shearing. In warm weather, the fleece rises. This means that the greasy inner layer (mat), which has been lying against the skin, lifts away from the body. The sheep can then be sheared easily by cutting through the new wool underneath the mat.
Whenever possible, sheep are shorn in the morning, partly because the shearers find it more difficult to work in the heat of the day and partly to allow the sheep more time to adjust to the loss of their protective coats before the temperature drops at night.
The shearer removes the fleece in one piece, using hand shears or electric clippers. It is opened along the chest and abdomen with the sheep in a sitting position; then the sheep is slowly turned as the wool is shorn from the sides and back. Some shepherds shear the sheep on the ground, others on special stools which give some relief from bending. Gangs of contract shearers may be employed for larger flocks.
After the fleece has been removed from the sheep, it is rolled up. First of all, it is spread out on a clean surface ; the sides are turned in towards the middle; then the fleece is rolled, starting at the tail. When only the neck wool is left exposed, it is twisted into a band and wound around the rest of the fleece to hold it in a bundle.
Marking and counting
After shearing, all the sheep are once again dipped and drenched against parasites. At the same time, they are counted and given the flocks’s own mark of identification.
Counting is done out loud and, until recently, many shepherds used the old Norse words, `yan, tan, tethra, methera, pip, casra, raesa, caesa, horna, dick’. Three methods of marking are used, on the horns, ears and wool. For example, in one flock in North Yorkshire, a ‘T’ is burned on to the left horn, the left ear is underbit (an oval shape is taken out of the lower edge), and certain marks are pressed on to the newly-shorn sheep (using a cold iron dipped in coloured fluid). These identification marks ensure that a straying sheep can be returned to its rightful owner.
A range of products
Mountain lamb and mutton are famous for their sweetness, but hill sheep are probably more noted for their wool. Britain exports tweed cloth, made from local wools, all over the world.
The horns of the rams provide the raw material for another by-product, carved shepherd crooks. The spiralled horns are heated and pressed into the shape of a crook. They are then carved into the resemblance of a fish, pheasant or dog, painted and varnished, and fixed on to a staff of hazel. These crooks are carried by shepherds in the auction ring when they sell their sheep.
Hill sheep share a common ability to tolerate a harsh climate and exposed situations, but they vary considerably in type and appearance. Each mountain range or area has its own breeds.
The commonest group, totalling almost three million ewes, is the blackfaced, coarse-wool variety. The Swaledale originated in the northern Pennines but is becoming increasingly popular in other mountainous regions. The Dalesbred is slightly smaller and is found in the western Pennines, in the area around Bentham and Hellifield, while the Rough Fell is slightly larger and is found around Sedbergh.
The Scottish Blackface is the most numerous hill breed, with over two million ewes. Its wool is coarser than that of the Swaledale, and it has a prominent Roman nose, with more white markings. It shares the Scottish hills with the Cheviot, which contrasts sharply with the blackfaced breeds. The Cheviot also has a Roman nose, but its face and legs are white, and most of the sheep are hornless, with alert ears held erect. Their wool is softer and finer and they are less hardy than the blackfaced breeds. There are two breeds: the larger, more robust North Country Cheviot which occupies the northern parts of Caithness and Sutherland, and the more active Cheviot which is found in the hills from which it takes its name. Because the Cheviots produce high-quality mutton as well as fine wool, they have also become popular on lowland pastures.
Breeds with softer wool
In the southern Pennines, three hill breeds are found in close proximity. The Whitefaced Woodland is a rare and localised breed. It is a large, horned sheep with white legs and face, and soft wool. The Lonk is midway in type between the Whitefaced Woodland and the blackfaced hill breeds: it has a dark face but soft, high-quality wool. It is found near Colne and Clitheroe in Lancashire. The Derbyshire Gritstone is large and dark-faced, with soft wool, but it is hornless. Despite its name, it is found mainly in south-eastern Lancashire.
The hill sheep of Wales are small in size compared with other hill breeds, but strong in numbers, with more than two million ewes. The Welsh Mountain has white legs and face and a fleece which varies in quality and may contain coarse red fibres (kemp). The South Wales Mountain is a little larger, with coarser wool and tan markings.
Local breeds have also been established on the hills of south-western England. The Whitefaced Dartmoor is unusual among hill breeds, for its wool is long and lustrous. The Exmoor Horn is smaller and probably the least hardy of the hill breeds.
In contrast, the Herdwick, inhabiting the highest slopes and peaks of the Lake District, is the hardiest. In severe snow-storms, sheep of this breed can survive buried in drifts for several days. Their wool is coarse and changes colour as the sheep ages. Lambs are born black but the colour gradually fades to grey or white.