Saturday, 29 August 2015

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Cumbrian farmers passing on their Herdwick skills

Herdwick sheep have roamed freely over the Lakeland landscape for more than 1,000 years.

Joe Relph photo
Joe Relph

And in a bid to keep the iconic breed alive, farmers Joe and Hazel Relph are passing on their traditional skills to the next generation.

The couple, who have a 2,000-strong flock of Herdwicks in Borrowdale, are working closely with Newton Rigg College, near Penrith, in a scheme supported by The Prince’s Countryside Fund. The Relphs take students from the college to show them the best way of working with Herdwicks.

The couple, whose Borrowdale farm has the Royal seal of approval as a favourite B&B of Prince Charles, are at the forefront of the fightback for a sheep flock that came close to extinction during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic when many hill farmers’ stock, overwintering on lowland farms, were culled to stop the disease’s spread.

The family have tenant farmed their 2,000-acre Yew Tree Farm at Rosthwaite for more than 30 years. It took the couple, who lost many of their animals, eight years to claw back what they lost in 2001.

“For us the threat of extinction was real. We lost valuable breeding lines. We had to breed children off grandmothers. We had no choice,” said Hazel.

“But we have moved forward and are now keen to keep the breed and this traditional way of farming going. If the circle breaks, then it will go to pieces.”

The training scheme supports those wanting to take over family farms or start their own hill farming business.

“The average age of a hill farmer is 70. We need new blood. But they have to be passionate about the Herdwicks and the traditional way of farming,” said Hazel.

“This is not a closed shop. Anyone who is passionate about hill farming and the Herdwick breed can come on board. We don’t use helicopters or tractors here. What you have is one man and his dog literally.”

Yew Tree Farm has won many accolades over the years for the meat it produces. This week they are declaring the start of ‘Herdy Season’ – when last year’s meat first becomes available. Other butchers are also starting to push their Herdwick cuts.

The Relphs say they are keen to see people associate the breed with the county, like clotted cream with Devon and Cornwall.

Some 99 per cent of regional UK Herdwicks roam freely over the Cumbrian fells.

They mature slowly, producing a quality meat with a more succulent, gamier flavour than regular lamb.

Hazel and Joe give visitors to their farm the chance to sample a unique and ancient breed that is prized for its superb taste and quality. “Our Herdwicks are born here, cared for here, and are eaten here,” said Hazel.

The couple also supply three Lake District hotels.

“Herdwick meat is the real taste of the Lakeland hills, because the sheep eat what the Lakeland is,” said Hazel.

“Not only does the meat taste of what the sheep eats, but they graze the fells, maintaining their environment and creating the landscape we all recognise. It is a very labour-intensive way of farming and very expensive.”

But the Relphs feel their Herdwick meat range called Meat Worthy of its Origin is worth it.

The Cumbria-based Rare Breeds Survival Trust has applauded the work being done by farmers to keep the Herdwick breed alive. “This sheep is a superb example of an animal that has adapted to its environment,” said Ruth Dalton of the organisation.

“We keep an eye on the Herdwicks because it is one of our most geographically concentrated breeds. If foot and mouth struck again in that area they would quickly come onto the danger list.”



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