The high fell farming year begins in November with tip-time (when the rams are put in with the ewes).  The old saying is “You can’t have a good lambing time if you don’t have a good tip-time.”

We obviously had a good tip-time in 2022, because over a third of the ewes had twins. This is a mixed blessing, because they can’t support twins on the common, so have to stay in the fields until the lambs are eating enough grass not to be dependent on their mother’s milk. 

Pictured: Pauline Blair at Miller Place Farm with Herdwick lambs

The fields that are classed as species rich in the Higher Level Environmental Scheme have to be clear of sheep by mid-May and not grazed or cut before mid-July. I try to delay gathering for clipping to late July to give the flowers time to set seed, but trying to cope with the vagaries of the weather and a depleted number of shearers trying to fit everyone in at the same time, is always a challenge. This year the fields were cleared by 1st May and we gathered 15th July: earlier than I should have liked, because the drought had delayed the later flowering species, but balancing nature-friendly farming with animal welfare inevitably involves compromise. Over the last forty years there has been a staggering increase in the range, height and density of the bracken, which puts the heavily woolled sheep and particularly the lambs at risk from blow fly strike (maggots).

After they had been clipped the sheep that don’t have lambs (geld) went straight back to the common, but the ewes and single lambs stayed in the fields for a couple of weeks. The better quality grazing improves the condition of the ewes, which are dosed for fluke and the lambs are dosed to get rid of any worms they may have picked up. They are treated to protect them against fly strike and also ticks, which are a major problem on this common.  Heredity immunity to the parasites and deficiencies, which vary on different fells, is the most important element of heafing, non-aclimatised, introduced animals will die.

Now, in mid-August, after a period of mainly wet weather, the fells, which have been horribly brown and burned, are looking green again and it’s time to turn the ewes and twins to the common. The lambs will heaf to this area and begin the process of enhancing their genetic heritage.