Evaporating Herwicks and other stories


Sunday morning was a bit hectic. I got my baby ‘pet lambs’ fed (these are the ones who still get milk) but then had to dash off to church because as well as the normal service we had an extra one. Our village lost two lads in the First World War, and this week was the centenary of the death of one of them. The families had asked if we could do a special memorial service and so we did.

Anyway walking home from church I got to our yard gate to discover a herdwick ewe with two lambs standing there. We don’t have any herdwicks. We’re far too close to sea level and the grass is too rich and I suspect even the air is too dense. I looked at this outfit with interest. She was a herdwick but her lambs weren’t. Had she lost her own and somebody had fostered these onto her or had she just been bred to a lowland tup?
Anyway I got her and her two lambs in a field with our last three ewes to lamb and the older pet lambs who no longer need milk. I phoned a couple of neighbours to see if anybody was short of a ewe and then went to get a bit of dinner. At about 1:30pm I fed the bunch the herdwick had joined. She was sitting there quite happily with her two lambs. At 3pm I had to walk through that bunch and discovered the herdwick wasn’t there. She’d gone.

Now that field is stock proof. No sheep have escaped from there in nearly two years now. But then she’s a herdwick. Spring has sprung and they get the urge to head uphill, to where the air is thinner and the grass is coarse. When faced with fences sheep cannot get through, I’ve come to the conclusion herdwicks merely evaporate to re-manifest somewhere less convenient.

Animals do get this urge to travel at times. We once had a large black dairy cow calving. She wasn’t getting anywhere so I tied it up in the calving box to give it a hand. Anyway after faffing about for a while I decided she needed somebody more competent than me, so I would get the vet. I untied her (just in case she went down when she was untended,) and went to phone. I didn’t bother her after that, because given peace and quiet she might have got on with it.

So when the vet arrived we went up to the calving box and discovered she’d gone. She’d jumped over the gate and headed who knows where? It was past 11pm, on a dark (but not stormy) night. So we took a guess on the direction she probably went. There were hoof prints in a gateway where there shouldn’t be hoof prints so we went into the field to look for her. Unfortunately we’d just made round baled silage. So the field was full of big black round bales. Driving round in the dark searching for a black cow amongst a lot of black bales is a somewhat surreal experience. Fortunately we found her, got her home and all the movement and bouncing about had been useful. She’d opened up a lot more and the vet had comparatively little trouble getting the calf out. We put her and her calf in a pen with a lot higher gate and left her to get on with the whole motherhood experience.


Speak to the expert


More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

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8 thoughts on “Evaporating Herwicks and other stories

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 22, 2017 at 4:01 pm Reply

    When the herdwick disappeared, did she take the lambs with her? Mamma might be able to jump over fences, but did her non-herdwick lambs do the same?

    Would you have found her had she been one of yours? Looking for the lost sheep and all of that biblical stuff is more likely if the sheep is yours to begin with.

    I never think of these things without your posts, but I have a character who grew up on a farm, and still goes home to help when he has time, and I like to have this information percolating into my subconscious – I may use it some day.

    • jwebster2 May 22, 2017 at 4:20 pm Reply

      She took her lambs with her, which is the clever trick. You’ll often get mum and lambs on the opposite side of a fence with all the noise and upset this involves. But I suspect that when mum is a herdwick the lambs just learned to cope with travel at an early age. I did notice they stuck close to her, probably for good reason 🙂
      As for ownership, she did have eartags, one of which would have contained an electronic chip so she had an owner.
      If she had been mine then I’d have made a lot more effort hunting for her but then if she’d been mine and I’d known her wandering I’d probably have put her somewhere with walls round it 🙂
      You may begin to suspect why we don’t have herdwicks, they’re notorious

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 22, 2017 at 4:46 pm

        The magicians of the sheep world? Eartags – which you didn’t get to use because she escaped. Of course.

        Maybe they are like so many animals: if the head fits through the hole, the rest of the animal can be squeezed enough to follow. I know better than to leave a little hole where my chinchilla – who is more fur than anything else – can get her head through. Had a devil of a time moving furniture when the husband, who hadn’t grasped that concept, moved something I’d put up to block her path to a small hole – and we had to get large furniture out of the way to rescue her.

      • jwebster2 May 22, 2017 at 8:46 pm

        Cattle are notorious for believing if the head can go through, the rest of the body will follow. Given that they might be moving at speed, weigh over half a ton and are wedge shaped, it’s not such a stupid idea 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 22, 2017 at 8:55 pm

        But if they’re wrong, they’re SPECTACULARLY wrong – and end up on Youtube.

      • jwebster2 May 22, 2017 at 8:58 pm

        Oh yes, we had one bullock who got jammed between a wall and a gate post and I had to lift him out of the place vertically using a tractor loader. He did at least have the grace to look embarrassed 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 23, 2017 at 1:44 am

        I don’t understand how a cow can look MORE embarrassed, but I’ll take your word for it if you don’t have photos.

        That, and the lack of opposable thumbs. Otherwise, they outweigh us.

      • jwebster2 May 23, 2017 at 7:20 am

        No I never have photos, what with not owning a camera. But cattle can somehow look embarrassed and even guilty, whilst sheep can look affronted.

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