Wherever you go in Lakeland, you’ll see sheep—hundreds of them. After a short visit to the Lake District, a young American friend of my daughter said, “I’ve never seen so many sheep in my whole life.”
Many's the time I've had to slam the brakes on when a stray sheep had wandered into the road, and then stood there, staring at me and my car as if to say, "I'll move away when I feel like it." And, of course, there were the other times when the farmer was moving a flock from one field to another and you crawl along behind them, while the sheepdog tries to round up the strays which have decided to stop and graze on the roadside verges. At times like that, there's no point thinking you're going to get somewhere quickly, because you can't!
Herdwick sheep are indigenous to the Lake District. The name comes from the Old Norse word herdvyck, meaning sheep pasture and it’s probable that the Herdwick ancestors were brought to the area by the Vikings in the 10th century.
It’s said that 99% of all Herdwick sheep are farmed in the Lake District and that 95% of them live within 14 miles of Coniston in the southern Lakes. This makes them vulnerable to outbreaks of disease, and it’s estimated that 25% were lost in the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001.
They’re known for their robustness and their ability to live on forage. They spend the winters on the fells, and usually stay within their own grazing area, due to their territorial tendencies. In the past, some sheep farms were granted fell rights, allowing them to use common grazing land. This led to the enclosing of the lower fells with dry stone walls, marking off one’s farmer’s land from another’s.
Herdwicks are reared for both meat and wool. They produce strongly flavoured lamb and mutton, and their wool, coarse and grey, is often used for carpets.
Sheep-farmers use their own counting system which derive from Celtic times. This varies from place to place, especially in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Derbyshire. There’s even a slight difference between the North and South Lakes. Back in the sixties, I heard an old farmer using this system of counting, but I’m not sure how prevalent it is now, with many old traditions dying out.
Here are some of the numbers:
1 = yan
2 = tan
3 = teddera
4 = meddera
5 = pimp
6 = settera
7 = lettera
8 = hovera
9 = dovera
10 = dick
Numbers 11-14 add the yan, tan etc to dick, 15 = bumfit, and 16-19 add the yan, tan etc to bumfit. Finally 20 = jiggot.
That’s as far as the numbering went. To count a larger number of sheep, a shepherd would move his finger to another notch on his stick or drop a pebble in his pocket for each 20 of the count.