wintered herdwicks

This is a fancy technical term for spending your life chasing after sheep, (or in extreme cases, goats.)

Actually people forget that livestock have always moved about a lot. This isn’t just some modern development. If you read about Rob Roy and the 17th century Highlands, an important part of society was the Yorkshire cattle dealer who would buy this year’s crop of hill cattle and have them driven south to fatten in the Vale of York.

In Cumbria we’ve got something similar, in that young Herdwick females (hoggs, female sheep who’re not old enough to put to the tup) spend their first winter in the lowlands, whether around the perimeter of Cumbria or even further away.

Now they just get loaded into a trailer and driven there but I can remember being told that in the 1940s and 1950s my Grandfather occasionally took wintering sheep from a relative who farmed up the other side of Coniston. Back then, two men plus dogs walked the sheep south along the roads. It took them two days to walk south with the sheep, stopping the night at a farm of another relative. It’s about twenty five miles and there’s a limit to how fast you want to walk sheep. When they got here with the sheep, they’d spend the night here, and next day they’d walk back to Coniston again in one day. Men walk faster than sheep.

During the Foot and Mouth epidemic, there was a danger that the Herdwick breed might be wiped out by the Blair government and bureaucratic over-reaction to combating the disease. At one point it was feared that the lowland dairy farmers who were temporary custodians of the next breeding generation of the breed would just surrender them to a slaughter scheme. The thinking was that once grass started growing the hoggs normally head back for the hills. Dairy farms need the grass for their own livestock. Whilst it’s fine to have a few sheep about in winter cleaning up the remains of last year’s grass, having the woolly maggots eating grass that was grown for dairy cows can be a very expensive hobby.

In reality, rather that cutting their losses and just dumping the hoggs into the government’s slaughter scheme I know a lot of dairy farmers who worked with the owner of the hoggs, doing their damnedest to keep them alive and out of the claws of Defra.

So those supermarket buyers who are trying to drive prices down for animals which have spent their lives on more than one farm are in danger of undermining traditional practices of considerable antiquity.

Still, people abusing animal welfare regulation for their own purposes is nothing new. The latest example was the fuss over animal sentience and us leaving the EU. The hypocrisy was mind-blowing. I know people who have been attacking the EU for over a generation because it insisted we have live animal exports as part of the free movement of goods, open market etc. Suddenly they were conned by a lot of people who were looking for an excuse to attack Brexit/Wicked Tory scum (delete as the whim takes you) into claiming that the livestock shipping, bull fighting, puppy exporting EU was the only true guardian of animal welfare.

Animals in the UK have comprehensive protection under several acts. The 2006 Animal Welfare act makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal.

‘Animal’ is defined in Section 1 to include all (non-human) vertebrates and may be extended by regulation to include invertebrates on the basis of scientific evidence that “animals of the kind concerned are capable of experiencing pain or suffering”. While the legislation does not specifically mention the word ‘sentient’, the Explanatory Notes for Section 1 mention that the Act applies to vertebrate animals as they are “currently the only demonstrably sentient animals”.

There’s a useful pdf that sums it up, produced by the House of Commons Library.



There again I was giving a chap a hand unloading some Swaledale hoggs onto their winter pasture. He has other jobs, and the world doesn’t really think of him as a farmer.

I asked him about movement licences and similar and he shrugged.

“I got a thick envelope from Defra the other day but I’ve not got round doing anything about it yet.”
I just nodded wisely. “I see you’re getting the hang of this farming business.”



as an aside, I did put together a collection of stories. Some about now, some tales I was told about my grandfather and farming round Barrow in the war.


They’re available on kindle, but you can read them on any phone or tablet if you download the free kindle app.


It’s called, ‘And sometimes I just sits?’


yours for 99p

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6 thoughts on “Transhumance

  1. oldhenwife December 1, 2017 at 3:25 pm Reply

    ‘… an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal’ What is unnecessary? What is suffering? Is it OK to cause suffering as long as it’s necessary in someone’s terms? Pah.

    • jwebster2 December 1, 2017 at 3:39 pm Reply

      I suspect they had to put the ‘unnecessary’ in to stop idiots taking farmers to court for trimming a sheep’s feet without total anesthetic.

  2. Scottie December 2, 2017 at 12:00 pm Reply

    I am glad there are reasonable protections for animals against suffering. It is a shame to me we have to legislate it in such detail as if humans can not figure out what might be meant by suffering or harm. I am reminded growing up on my relatives farms. Anyone who think farmers do not care about their animals have not see their grandfather or uncle get up at 1 in the morning to watch over a calving heifer. I have seen farmers do things that might seem cruel to those not knowing but were done to save the life of both a breached calf and the mother cow.

    I wonder at the changes in the world. I can not imagine a society built around and understanding of taking livestock on a two day walk twice a year. I wonder if we have lost something important. Be well, happy season for you and your family. Hugs

    • jwebster2 December 2, 2017 at 6:09 pm Reply

      All the best Scottie
      Remember that the UK had the industrial revolution first, so we’re probably the people with least real family connection to the land and agriculture

  3. Linda Sutherland December 3, 2017 at 10:33 am Reply

    Interesting vocabulary difference. Here (a good bit north from you), hoggs are neutered male lambs/yearolds. (They don’t usually survive beyond one year old, the freezer catches them at their best then!)

    • jwebster2 December 3, 2017 at 1:37 pm Reply

      the sheer number of words, tegs, hoggets, wethers, shearlings etc is enormous and a lot of them must have drifted in meaning over the years

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