The Countryside Museum
Cumbria and Sheep :: Counting Sheep :: Marking sheep :: Woolmarks and Horn burns :: Gathering and Clipping :: Selling the clip :: Value of Wool

The Sheep and their Wool

Cumbria without sheep would not be Cumbria. They have been the mainstay of the economy from time out of mind.

The main income from sheep today is the sale of their lambs, but in times past the wool was equally important. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in Parliament is still seated on "The Woolsack" in recognition of wool's historic value.

The Herdwick, the Rough Fell and their close neighbour the Swaledale have been bred and reared to withstand the climate. The Herdwick and Rough Fell in particular have been shepherded generation on generation, possibly back to early medieval times, to their own hill territory or "heaf", to which they will always return.


In a list of the wool sold by religious houses in England, showing the quantities sold and the price paid for it in Flanders, we find, "The Monks of Shap sell their wool just as it comes from the fold, at 9 marks [£6] a sack, and they have usually ten sacks a year." (British History)

Commons vs Enclosed fields

Bailey & Culley in their 1794 survey for the Royal Agricultural Society comment that "the advantages that arise from enclosing, in respect to increase of produce or value, must entirely depend upon the modes of management" whether it was used as arable land or as pastureland. In particular, "while [the land is] in a state of common, everyone turns upon it what he pleases, and there is generally double the quantity of stock that there ought to be" so that the stock "barely existed", and did not improve. At this time clearly there was no law against keeping entire animals among the herds and flocks on the commons, so there was little control over what was bred there. One case near Penruddock was cited where the tups were never exchanged for fresh ones from elsewhere, so the sheep became extremely inbred. The flocks on commons elsewhere were described as being "ill-formed, poor, starved, meagre animals".

Cumberland: Chapter VI Enclosures

The Mountainous districts are all open, and most probably will long remain so; the cultivatable parts are a mixture of old enclosure and commons... the ancient fields are small and irregular... the fields of those commons that have been divided within the last thirty years [1790-1820 approx] are laid out in straight lines and mostly enclosed by quick fences [hawthorn]. Bailey & Culley

The Herdwick Sheep

drawing of herdwick ram, about 1794
A Herdwick Ram, illustrated in Bailey & Culley's General View of the Agriculture of Cumberland, 1794.

summary text: Of this breed of sheep, commonly called Herdwicks, the ewes and wethers are all polled or hornless, and also many of the tups; but a great portion of white, with a few black spots on faces and legs, are accounted marks of the purest breed; they have tine, small, clean legs.
summary text: the wool is short and forms a thick matted fleece, much finer than the black-faced heath sheep, with which variety they seem to have been crossed, from some of the rams having spiral horns, and from some kemps or hairs being intermixed amongst some fleeces of the wool.
summary text: they do not face the coming storm, but, like other sheep, turn their backs on it
summary text: the sheep have, time immemorial, been farmed out to herds, at a yearly sum. From this circumstance, these farms, three or four in number, have obtained the name of Herdwicks, and the sheep, the appelation of Herdwick sheep.