The most remarkable characteristics of these Herdwick sheep are their homing instinct and their marvellous memories…. If a lamb, after being suckled on the mountain ‘heaf’ or place of pasture, is taken away from it after six or eight weeks, and carried miles away, it will never forget the place of its infancy, but will, as soon as the restless feeling of the next springtime calls it to the mountain tops, if it has opportunity, make its way through fair or foul over miles of country back again to its ‘heaf.’ (pp. 48-9)
This homing instinct also seems to combine with it a remarkable sense of proprietary right as well as locality. The sheep appear to know their bounds almost to a yard upon the mountain-side, where they have the right to feed, and though there are no walls or a fence to prevent them straying beyond their pastures, they do not do this, or if they do kit, they are pushed back by the neighbour flock. It is this power of guarding their own that obliges the farmers to keep up their flocks to a certain strength. The flocks press against one another, and keep the peace as they keep their bounds, because their strength is equal. (pp. 50-1)
They are very weather-wise, these herdwicks. If a storm comes on in winter-time, they will at once seek the tops, because they know the wind will not allow the snow to lie there…. Their agility is the result of their being always in training. They never grow fat, in fact it may almost be said that no herdwick mutton, which is the sweetest of its kind in Great Britain, is ever obtained from the fellside. They must be fattened for the market in valley pastures. (p. 51)
The management of the sheep is very much as follows: Towards the end of February, any sheep upon the fells are gathered for dipping, to guard them against the fly. At the end of February to the beginning of March the ewes, big with young, of their own instinct, come down towards the mountain farms. There is a general ‘raking’ of the fells by the shepherds, which commences in the Skiddaw neighbourhood on the 21st March, and after this for some weeks the fells are silent and lifeless. Sometimes hay is given to the sheep in addition to the better grass of the valley enclosures for a week or fortnight previous to their becoming mothers (pp. 51-2)….
They drop their lambs at any date between April 14th and May 14th. The mothers and their lambs are kept in the intakes until it is thought the lambs are strong enough to go up to the fells, and as they become strong enough, they are driven off, so that by the end of the second week of May they are all on the fellside. It is the custom of the shepherds at once to take the sheep to that part of the ‘heaf’ that is furthest from home. (p. 52)
Before the lambs go up to the fells they are earmarked and ‘smit’ or ‘smitted’ (p. 52)…. Every lamb before it is allowed to go up to te fell is thus marked for life, and carries in its ear or ‘lug,’ and sometimes on its horns, as well as upon the wool upon its back, the lug-mark or law-mark by which its master can claim it wherever found. There are shepherd gatherings once or twice in the year for various well-defined areas, and may lost sheep is brought to these gatherings and restored to its owner. (p. 55)
The sheep are left upon their ‘heafs,’ or feeding places, with their lambs until the first week of July (p. 55)….
At the beginning of July the shepherds go off to the fells to ‘lait’ the sheep for the shearing (p. 58)….
The sheep and lambs are brought down together from the high fells and given a good night’s rest in the farm intake. Each farm has its own clipping day from time immemorial. There are perhaps 600 to 1200 sheep to be clipped, and as the best hand at clipping cannot clip more than seventy or eighty in a day, and several hands are necessary, the neighbourliness of our dalesmen comes to the rescue. They stream in from far and near, over hill and dale, with their clipping clothes and their shears in a bundle under their arms; they just pass the day to their host, sit down on the clipping-stools, and the work goes forward, silently except for the pleasant sound of the shears, until the farm girls come out to bid the men to the washtubs outside the kitchen door and the dinner that awaits them in the kitchen. Then after a quarter of an hour for a ‘smeuk,’ back they go to the shadow of the great sycamores and work away till tea-time, and back again till sundown, and on through the long-lighted evening of July (pp. 60-1)….
On the following morning away go the sheep and lambs to the ‘heaf.’…. Except for the August dipping, the sheep remain ungathered on the fells till October. (p. 63)….
In October the ewes or ‘gimmers’ are brought down and drafted out for breeding purposes, and the ‘wethers’ or male sheep, are sent to be fattened for the market. Sheep-shows are the order of the day in this month. By the second week in November the sheep have been all gathered from the high fells. The rams are put to the ewes in the breeding season about the 21st November. As sheep-shows and dog-trials were the order of the day in September, ram-shows are the fixtures in the shepherd’s almanack for November. (p. 63)….
They are a fine race these Viking shepherds, as anyone may see who will go to a dog-trial in the Lake Country. We have still amongst us the Michaels that Wordsworth knew and described. And men of character they need to be. They are called to face all storms upon the height. They must find their way through blinding mist and over country that to the unexpert would mean death. You may see them as they go to the ‘heaf,’ give a lift to the lambs that seem fatigued, one under each arm; you may watch them descending from the heights with a gull-grown ewe that has met with some accident over their shoulders, followers in their humble way of the Good Shepherd, Whom Isiah foresaw and of Whom he wrote: ‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and shall gently lead those that are with young.’ (pp. 68-9)….
Men too they are who are as silent as the silent places wherein their work lies. Even at a shepherds’ meeting they are monosyllabic till at the end of it they see the dogs start upon the hound trail, or join the hunters coming ‘home from the hill.’ Men of long sight they are, and of marvellous memory. (p. 69)
(By Fell and Dale at the English Lakes, pp. 47-72)