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& A 1 – 7 Published by Rough Fell Sheepbreeders
What is a “Hill Sheep”?
A: A “Hill
Sheep” is one that can live all the
year round on its mountain or moorland “Heaf” or
“Heft”, with minimal input or
interference from man and still bring in a fleece at Midsummer and a
healthy lamb in the autumn.
So, what is the “heaf” or
A: (etymology: Old Norse vb.
Heftdadra (past) “…acquired by right or
prescription.”)The “heft” or
“heaf” is the finite area occupied by
“the flock” (on open moor or
mountain). It is
also used to describe
the territory of the individual sheep, within the flock boundary, which
according to season and weather. The sheep is
attached to the heaf both by heredity and genetically.
In what way is the “Hill sheep”
different from other types?
A: A “Hill
sheep” is genetically and
physiologically different from her lowland cousins in that:
- She is
better able to utilise poor vegetation to produce milk for the lamb and
increase her own body weight.
- She is able
to lay down internal fat (in late summer) which can be utilised as a
bodily food reserve, during lean times in winter, in a way that would
kill a lowland sheep.
Do all “Hill sheep” have this ability
in equal measure?
“traditional” management systems, practised by
countless generations of
shepherds/flock masters, sheep that did not have this genetic ability
to a high
degree would die during the winter or fail to breed; either way the
What is the effect of “modern”
management of the “hills flocks”?
A: Modern, rigid management
exemplified by the so-called “environmental
schemes” are slowly, but
inexorably, destroying the traditional hefted flocks.
How is this happening?
A: The policy-makers do not
- They do not
know what a true “Hill Sheep” is (see Q1)
- They do not
understand what a “heaf” or
“heft” is, especially the
“genetic” connection of sheep to heft (see Q2)
(Though since 2001 they have learned to use the words!)
- They cannot
comprehend the sheep’s dietary preferences.
How can a sheep be connected
“genetically” to a tract of land?
A: The altitude, aspect,
local climate and most
important the underlying geology all affect the soil type. This in turn determines
the vegetation and
minerals (trace elements) available to the grazing animal.
two moors or mountains are exactly alike.
established on a hill “beyond living memory” will
thrive. They have
come to terms with their
(as I have done) to a geologically and climatically different hill. All the neighbouring
“beyond living memory”, thrived.
newcomers did not. They
was to them, a mineral imbalance: lower levels than they were used to
copper, cobalt and selenium exacerbated by a high level of manganese.
“swayback” in many lambs and
“pine” in many of the ewes caused unprecedented
mortalities or failures to breed.
copper, cobalt and selenium supplements?
Tried that; the high level of manganese negates the
sheep’s ability to
utilise these beneficial” trace elements”.
years on, the families that were unable to adapt died out. (The losses
hard to bear)
years on the descendants of those survivors are now as healthily
any other sheep on the hill.
would agree, there is a genetic connection between the animal and the
territory, my vet certainly does.
What are a sheep’s dietary preferences?
food of first choice; sheep eat short,
But, don’t sheep eat heather and isn’t
that “a bad thing”?
A: Sheep eat heather; in
summer, as food of
second choice if there is no suitable grass available; in the winter
there is no fresh grass so heather shoots are then both palatable and
digestible. And no, it is not “a bad thing”. Sheep
can eat up to 20 percent of
a season’s new growth of heather shoots with no detriment to
the health of the
(Progress towards defining
ecologically-sustainable grazing management: the 'Moorland Biomass' and
'Heather Suppression' projects Aspects
of Applied Biology 58, 2000: Vegetation management in changing
FW KIRKHAM 2000)
So, where is the “lack of
A: In order to
“protect” the heather (a laudable
aim in itself) from the effects of perceived
farmers/shepherds are paid to reduce the stock numbers on the hills: in
cases dramatically. What
considered a sensible level of winter stocking is now imposed on us in
with further paid reductions in winter.
What is the problem?
You are paid
A: If insufficient
sheep are on the hills in
summer to keep on top of the growing grass the more rampant varieties
long, coarse and unpalatable, in the process smothering the more
plants thus reducing the biodiversity, at the same time forcing the
eat heather; the very plant that the conservationists want to protect. The more sheep that are
taken off, the faster
problems have cropped up; one completely unforeseen. In parts of the Central Lake District so many
sheep have been removed
that the heafing system seems to have broken down. Sheep are straying
miles, turning up in valleys where they haven’t been seen
before. It seems that
there is a critical flock mass below which it is inadvisable to go.
problem was foreseeable; it’s just that no-one bothered to
ask the men on the
ground. By reducing sheep numbers, and by sending them away, the ewes
fitter. The fitter the ewe the more lambs she will conceive (the
of sheep). Twins are an embarrassment on a hill farm. They cannot be
the hill, the grazing isn’t good enough. Therefore they must
be kept on the
“inbye” all summer. But, the inbye is to provide
grazing for cattle and grass
to be conserved for winter keep. To grow the extra grass to support the
their mothers we have to use more fertiliser…which the
much rather we didn’t!
Yes, we are
paid. We are paid
to do something we
know is wrong and that hurts. But,
is the state of British Agriculture we cannot afford not to take the
money. That is an
even more painful pill
Surely it cannot be bad to be paid to remove sheep from
the hills in
done! Full circle:
go back to Q1.
sheep from the hills in winter and sending them to the lowlands we are
alive those strains that nature would not otherwise permit to live. We
then have no choice but to breed from them and their offspring thus
accelerating the process of decline.
or four sheep generations (six to eight years) the hills will be
populated by a
lot of Hill Sheep “look-alikes” that will be unable
to fulfil their proper
function should the “environmental money” run out,
or the nation realises it
needs affordable home produced food once again.
Richard Mawdsley M.R.A.C