Home About Us Contact Us Contents What Is It Links


 Letter sent to the Prime Minister. 12 Apr '01

Dear Sir.

Heafed or Hefted Flocks

The landscape of the British uplands that we like to regard as our heritage, that tourists love to visit, written about by Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott, was shaped by men and their sheep. The Heafed or Hefted flocks of the Welsh Mountains, the Lake District, and the Pennines from High Peak to the Borders, the Cheviots, Galloway Hills and the Scottish Highlands.

The Heaf or Heft is the territory occupied by a flock on open hill. The individual sheep live and move within these boundaries according to season and weather. Each lamb inherits its mother's patch and out on the hill it is possible to pick out family groups made up of different generations.

The heafing of flocks involves a lot more than teaching them the boundaries, which are rarely more than a stream, a ridge, or a rough track. That alone, from personal experience, takes from three to five years. From my yard gate one can walk over hills and mires for five miles as the crow flies before coming to the next fence. To drive from the same yard right round the fell and back is a thirty five mile trip. That gives some idea of the scale of some of the commons on which there are many heafs.

In the first years the losses are high. Sheep are drowned in the streams during spates because they haven't found the easy fords. Sheep drown in the bogs because they haven't learned the right paths through them. Sheep are buried in the snows because they don't know the safe shelters.

The next ten to fifteen years is spent weeding out those families which don't thrive on their 'new' heaf. It takes generations to build up a tolerance to the local diseases and mineral imbalances.

The sheep to be found on all the British fells and mountains are the lineal descendants of sheep that have been on those same hills for the best part of a thousand years. Alterations in breed type have been brought about slowly by introducing different rams, NOT by changing the female line.

Leaving aside the Lake District's Herdwick Sheep which are unique and already depleted by a quarter in the course of the current epidemic, the other breeds are nearly as difficult to replace. The main problem is the weather. Here in the Lakes we have an average rainfall of 1500 mm. [5 ft.]. The Western slopes of the Pennines are wet and have the same breeds of sheep, but already so many have been destroyed because of F&M disease that there will be no surplus for many years. The East slopes and the Yorkshire Dales have splendid sheep but they are bred to withstand snow NOT incessant rain and wind. North Yorkshire Moors produce good sheep but they've been bred to withstand the bitter cold and snows from the North Sea. Sheep taken from a dry hill to a wet one don't thrive. Sheep moved from a low fell to a mountain won't utilise the higher ground. The reason we have such a diversity of breeds in the British Isles is that each developed as the best suited to its particular environment.

The heafed flocks are, I believe, unique to the British Isles. Should they be lost or seriously depleted, through disease or neglect, we will also lose not only the people with their special skills who tend them, but also our upland landscape. The hills will revert to scrub, gorse, thorns and stunted, wind blasted trees. These flocks are part of a priceless heritage, are irreplaceable and must be protected, not at some time in the future, but NOW. Those who live and work in the uplands, through all seasons and who understand them, must be allowed a dominant voice.

Richard Mawdsley, .