Herdwick Sheep In the Blood

A passion for Herdwick sheep has led Ian Grisedale to pursue a modern commercial twist on the ancient Lake District hill breed.

His family farmed Swinside, Thwaites, near Millom in the south western fells of the Lake District where the hardy Herdwicks ran and up to 1,000ft above sea level.

Ian Grisedale

Ian Grisedale

He left the tenanted farm in 1992 and spent a spell working in Yorkshire, returning to his native Cumbria to Greenmount, Crooklands, Kendal, which is next to what is now the Westmorland County Show ground at Lane Farm.

Now Ian, his wife Angela and their son John, 20, run up to 120 pure-bred Herdwicks and some bought-in draft ewes alongside 60 Herdwick crosses on the limited acreage at Greenmount and on parcels of rented land amounting to 110 acres nearby. They also run a small pedigree beef herd and Ian does livestock contracting work.

The Herdwick lines all go back to the flock at Swinside but in recent years Ian has found that the breed is an excellent ewe to cross with terminal sires such as the Texel, Suffolk and Charollais.

Ian remembers that before the Texel breed was imported his father used to cross the Herdwicks with the Teeswater ram. Ian bought is first Texel ram in the mid 1980s.

The ewes at Greenmount not kept for pure breeding are put to the Texel, producing quality prime lambs. Females are retained and again put to the Texel and after three to four generations of Texel breeding they were crossed with the Cheviot and Hampshire Down.

“The Herdwicks are good mothers and they are easily lambed to the right type of Texel. While a sheep needs a nice head, the tups I buy don’t have a big head and this helps at lambing,” said Ian.

Ian has been a great promoter of the Herdwick at many northern shows and events. He has shown the breed for the 44 years at the Great Yorkshire Show, only missing two events because the classes were cancelled due to Foot and Mouth and Bluetongue.

Currently the sheep are exhibited often lifting the breed championships at 17 summer shows where he loves to meet fellow farmers and the general public. So far, the championship at the Westmorland Show on his doorstep is the only one to have eluded him!

“I love going to shows. I don’t want a holiday - I can’t see the point of going somewhere and doing nothing. I like meeting the crowds at the shows,” said Ian.

“At Penrith Show two years ago a woman from Teesdale said she would love to have some Herdwick sheep of her own. I said I would sell her some in lamb near to Christmas and the following spring she contacted me and said they had all lambed and she wanted to hire a Herdwick tup to put on them.”

Ian and his son John with their champion gimmers at Borderway Agri Expo 2017

Ian and his son John with their champion gimmers at Borderway Agri Expo 2017

He has also been keen to highlight the commercial aspects of the Herdwick producing crossbred lambs, supporting the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association of which he is a member of the executive committee in its marketing strategy at various events including .

He scored a coup for the Herdwick breed at the 2017 Borderway Agri Expo in November when he and John showed a pair of Herdwick cross Texel gimmer lambs which went on to take the champion pair of hillbred lambs.

The lambs weighed 45kg each and they have been retained for breeding. Ian is planning to enter them for the crossbred shearling class at the Great Yorkshire Show - he was placed third last year with two Hampshire Down cross gimmers.

They also won the Rough Fell class for the second year running with another pair of gimmer lambs.

“I can sell as many Herdwick sheep as I can produce. All the pure wether lambs are sold to a private customer at Hawes while the crossbreds are sold store at Bentham in mid-September and they will be finished by their buyers by Christmas.

“The crossbred lambs when they are finished generally kill out at around 64%. Some of the crossbred females are kept for breeding. I like my first cross Herdwick Texels the best.

The show lambs are fed for eight weeks once a day with Taylors of Balderston’s 18% protein mix.

Ian also hires out Herdwick tups with as many as 14 going to purebred smaller flocks across the north of England between October and Christmas. Draft ewes are also good to sell through Bentham auction mart.

Ian says there is a ready market for Herdwick draft ewes with around 5,000 selling every October through Cockermouth and Broughton in Furness auctions to lowland farms to produce crossbred lambs. The breed has a loyal following in Wales as well as Scotland.

Another attribute of the Herdwick is its weathertight fleece with the right breeding. According to Ian it should resemble a caterpillar when it walks, with the wool on its back opening and closing like the pages of a book. Ian also exhibits fleeces.

As well as the sheep enterprise, the Grisedales have a herd of a dozen pedigree Limousin cows plus followers in their Angiean herd. Angela has been passionate about the breed for many years while Ian had Galloways and Blondes at Swinside.

The cattle have won numerous championships in shows in the region but their greatest accolade was a bull stirk Angela bought in Carlisle for 2,500gns which went on to win the class for continental young bulls at the Royal Lancs Show out of an entry of 36.