Herdwicks: The 'smiley' sheep of the Lake District

With their grey-streaked coats and white heads, the Herdwick sheep are a distinctive feature of the Lake District landscape. They have been dotted around the hilltops for centuries and the breed's survival was helped by the author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. 

The Herdwick breed is some 10,000 years old and genetically it is still effectively wild, unlike other commercialised breeds, with 90% of its global population in Cumbria.

With their thick wool coats, and wool on their faces too, this is a sheep that is beautifully adapted for the high altitude slopes abundant in the Lake District. Little ears stop them losing heat, they have wool on their thick stocky legs and a double-layer coat; the first layer is fleece, and on top of that they have a woolly overcoat with long hairs which flick off moisture and help keep them wind and water proof.

The Herdwick, whose name derives from "herdvyck" the old Norse word for sheep pasture, has helped shape the Lake District.

When people first settled in this area thousands of years ago, there wasn't really much you could grow in this area, and these sheep are really the only things that would live up there. That very ancient system of local pastoral farming has shaped the lalandscape to this day.

Indeed, the system of farming has barely changed since the Vikings arrived in the 8th century. 

Herdwick lambs are always born black - it's not known why, but it may be to absorb warmth up on the wild fells and provide camouflage among the stones.

By the time they are a year old, or a hogg, the Herdwick's fleece has turned a dark chocolate brown and their heads a milk white. As they age their coats become a mesh of greys, browns, blacks and whites creating that distinctive hue that wows many a Lake District visitor.

Their wool is thick and wiry, like a scouring pad, and lacks the finery of other fleeces. Despite this, various uses have been found for the wool, from making rugs to being mixed with bracken to form a hardy compost.