THE Lake District we know and love today owes everything to the little grey sheep and the shepherds who still ply their ancient trade by tending to their needs and keep. But if the stoic, sad, but rather noble, Herdwick, the iconic breed of a hundred books and poems, disappears at the rate it is going, rough scrubland and coarse grasses will quickly take over the landscape, claims the experts. The close-cropped upland fells, the gateway for thousands of walkers, will disappear. Stone walls will crumble, and the whole landscape will be changed forever, it is claimed. In 1916, there were 359 Herdwick flock locations recorded in Cumbria but new figures show that since then 202 flocks have been lost - 56 per cent in 100 years. The Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association (HSBA) said it would reach “crisis point” if government agencies and private landowners continued reducing the number of sheep and farms in the national park. “The Herdwick breed has been indigenous to the area for 1,000 years. This type of pastoralism farming has disappeared in the rest of Europe, but is still here in the Lake District and should be cherished,” said Amanda Carson, secretary of the HSBA. “It is difficult we do not want people to think we are whingeing farmers, and say we get money for taking sheep off the fells. Young shepherds are coming along looking to take over farms, and they are not getting any incentive to farm, instead they are regarded as land keepers. If this happens there would serious consequences for the whole rural community,” added Mrs Carson. “It is very sad, 115 farms that had Herdwick flocks have been sold, and are no longer farms, but are used for holiday lets, or equestrian or camping sites, or rewilding. In Little Langdale, for example, there is only one Herdwick farm left,” she added. A census by the HSBA, revealed that of the lost Herdwick farms, 115 (32 per cent) had become holiday lets or private homes with no livestock, while the other 87 were farms that no longer bred Herdwicks. Of the remaining 157 herdwick flocks, the census showed there were only 96 flocks with more than 50 breeding ewes and of those 33 showed a decline in numbers. The association estimates that only 58 farms have properly hefted flocks where the sheep are returned to an area of open fell each year that they have stuck to for countless generations. One classic Lake District hefted flock in 1916 had 500 breeding ewes but today that heft has 138 ewes. “Some of these flocks are definitely getting smaller. This is a pretty grim situation,” said Mrs Carson. In a letter to Cumbrian MPs, the HSBA said the main causes of these reductions were government environmental policies and the constant destocking of the sheep from the fells. They said that in some new farm tenancies, up to 50 per cent of the land available for farming had been removed by the landowner to make way for rewilding schemes. Will Rawling, 66, chairman of the HSBA, whose family has farmed in Ennerdale since the time of Henry VIII, said their main fear was the collapse of the ‘hefting’ system, “We want to maintain the integrity of the Herdwick breed and maintain the hefting system. Once that is lost it is gone for good.” Herdwick flocks roam the fells in all weathers and are only brought in for lambing, dipping and shearing, but their most remarkable feature is their hefting, the ability to stick to their own part of the mountain, something that has been passed down the generations.There are no fences on the high fells and sheep pass freely from one farmer’s grazing acres to the next farmer’s. However, farmers identify their own by the ‘smit’ marks made by the dye on the fleece and the ‘lug’ marks on their ears. Mr Rawling added: “Farmers have the difficult option of joining an environmental stewardship scheme and reducing sheep numbers to take more money offered than the sheep would be worth, or not joining and having to produce more livestock to make up for loss in money they could get from the scheme. But we cannot do this at the expense of traditional farming. It is this that is needed to maintain the Lake District and the cultural heritage.” Mrs Carson added that Herdwick flocks and the hefting practice was recognised as the ‘most defining feature’ of the Lake District, when it was awarded World Heritage Site Status in 2017 by the United Nations. “The WHS status was given because it was recognised that this traditional way of farming was something unique and these flocks underpinned a large part of that.” In 2012, Lakeland Herdwick meat was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. Andrea Meanwell, the Lake District National Park’s Farming Officer commented: “The Lake District is famous for its native Herdwick sheep and the breed is central to our internationally recognised cultural heritage. “We are working with Herdwick farmers in Borrowdale, Newlands and Bassenthwaite to make sure that the cultural value of the hefted flocks of Herdwick sheep is recorded as part of our ongoing Environmental Land Management (ELMS) test. "We will continue to work closely with the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association to try to ensure the future of uplands farming and to work together on challenges such as farm business viability, nature recovery and climate change.” Natural England, which provides advice on implementing government schemes, quoted in an article in The Times, said its advice on flock sizes was based on extensive monitoring data and many years of experience. It argued that a “significant portion” of the fells were in unfavourable condition due to inappropriate levels of grazing. However, it did say that it recognised the cultural value of commoning and Herdwick flocks. Most of the iconic Herdwick sheep are found within the county. It is believed they were introduced into the area by Norsemen in the 10th or 11th Century.The Herdwick breed is regarded as an iconic an emblem of Cumbria, and 95 per cent of the sheep are found within the county. They were immortalised by Beatrix Potter, a renowned breeder of Herdwicks and a protector of Lakeland’s small family farms. When she died in 1943 she left 14 farms and 4,000 acres to the National Trust. James Rebanks, Lakes farmer and author, said in his book ‘The Shepherd’s Life’: “For me the hope is that someone stands on my fell with a flock of Herdwick sheep, and feels the love I feel for this place. There are some things bigger than a man’s life.”