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Hill Sheep

(Q & A 1 – 7 Published by Rough Fell Sheepbreeders Association: 2007.)

Q1:  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 strong healthy lamb in the autumn.

 Q2:  So, what is the “heaf” or “heft”?

A:  (etymology: Old Norse vb. Heftda (inf.) 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 varies according to season and weather. The sheep is attached to the heaf both by heredity and genetically.

 Q3:  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:

 Q4:  Do all “Hill sheep” have this ability in equal measure?

 A: No. Under “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 line would die out.

Q5:  What is the effect of “modern” management of the “hills flocks”?

 A:  Modern, rigid management systems, as exemplified by the so-called “environmental schemes” are slowly, but inexorably, destroying the traditional hefted flocks.

 Q6:  How is this happening?

 A:  The policy-makers do not understand the subject.

 Q7:  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.

 Accept it: no two moors or mountains are exactly alike.

 A flock established on a hill “beyond living memory” will thrive.  They have come to terms with their environment.

 Move that flock (as I have done) to a geologically and climatically different hill.  All the neighbouring flocks, established “beyond living memory”, thrived.  The newcomers did not.  They encountered, what was to them, a mineral imbalance: lower levels than they were used to of copper, cobalt and selenium exacerbated by a high level of manganese. 

Result; “swayback” in many lambs and “pine” in many of the ewes caused unprecedented mortalities or failures to breed.

Remedy; supply copper, cobalt and selenium supplements?  Tried that; the high level of manganese negates the sheep’s ability to utilise these beneficial” trace elements”.

 Conclusion: 15 years on, the families that were unable to adapt died out. (The losses were hard to bear)

Twenty-five years on the descendants of those survivors are now as healthily established as any other sheep on the hill.

Charles Darwin would agree, there is a genetic connection between the animal and the territory, my vet certainly does.

 Q8:  What are a sheep’s dietary preferences?

 A:    As food of first choice; sheep eat short, sweet grass.

 Q9:  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 because 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 heather.

(Progress towards defining ecologically-sustainable grazing management: the 'Moorland Biomass' and 'Heather Suppression' projects Aspects of Applied Biology 58, 2000: Vegetation management in changing landscapes By FW KIRKHAM 2000)

Q10:  So, where is the “lack of understanding”?

 A:  In order to “protect” the heather (a laudable aim in itself) from the effects of perceived “overgrazing” (debatable) farmers/shepherds are paid to reduce the stock numbers on the hills: in most cases dramatically.  What might be considered a sensible level of winter stocking is now imposed on us in summer, with further paid reductions in winter.

 Q11:  What is the problem?  You are paid aren’t you?

 A:   If insufficient sheep are on the hills in summer to keep on top of the growing grass the more rampant varieties grow long, coarse and unpalatable, in the process smothering the more delicate plants thus reducing the biodiversity, at the same time forcing the sheep to eat heather; the very plant that the conservationists want to protect.  The more sheep that are taken off, the faster this occurs.

 Two other 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 for 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.

 The second 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 become fitter. The fitter the ewe the more lambs she will conceive (the contrariness of sheep). Twins are an embarrassment on a hill farm. They cannot be put onto 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 twins and their mothers we have to use more fertiliser…which the conservationists would much rather we didn’t!

Yes, we are paid.  We are paid to do something we know is wrong and that hurts.  But, such is the state of British Agriculture we cannot afford not to take the money.  That is an even more painful pill to swallow.

 Q12:  Surely it cannot be bad to be paid to remove sheep from the hills in winter?

 A:      Well done!  Full circle: go back to Q1.

By removing sheep from the hills in winter and sending them to the lowlands we are keeping alive those strains that nature would not otherwise permit to live. We will then have no choice but to breed from them and their offspring thus accelerating the process of decline.

In another three 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  

The Dash,




12 MAY ‘06
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