• 14 From Fell to Plate: PDO Status for Herdwick Lamb

    We spent the day yesterday at a school in Cumbria delivering a pilot of the Land Keepers education programme to children between the ages of 7 and 11. It was a great day – and more about that in a future blog – but what I wanted to note was one girl’s wish that the sheep could be kept on the hills, but not killed for food.

    You can imagine this triggered a debate around whether humans need to eat meat, and a gradual realisation that sheep are on the hills simply because humans eat them. A tough truth to swallow for a young person who doesn’t eat meat, but a fact, nevertheless.

    If you do eat meat, and enjoy a bit of lamb, have you ever tasted Lakeland Herdwick? There is something extremely special about it. So special, in fact that it has just been awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, a regime defined in European Union law to protect the names of regional foods. This is an assurance of exceptional quality, and a guarantee that branded Herdwick lamb has been born, reared, fattened, slaughtered and butchered here in Cumbria. It’s in the same class of distinction as Melton Mowbray pies, Cornish Clotted Cream, Isle of Man Queenies and Jersey Royal Potatoes.

    And another thing in its favour (apart from the exquisite taste): it is a rich source of the healthy Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids (with higher levels than lowland lamb).

    Back in 2012, not long before the ‘Herdwick At Its Best’ event supported by the Herdy Company on Yew Tree farm in Borrowdale, we had our first taste of Herdwick lamb. The farm, run by Hazel and Joe Relph, is one of several farms in the Lake District offering Herdwick products, and it’s well worth a visit: for the pasties, for the cuts of lamb to take home, and of course for the views and the walks.

    Here’s a piece I wrote about our first taste of lamb, and the night before, when we found a wild camping spot in the fells where the lambs graze:

    From Fell to Plate (originally written August 2012)

    This week has been typical for this year, with a mixture of mizzle, showers and torrential rain. But there was just enough of a gap in the rain for us to venture up into the hills of Borrowdale and sleep out.

    The extent of a typical Lakeland farm stretches from the lower slopes, or the valley bottom, to the tops of the fells into common land. In these higher reaches the boundaries of a farm are defined not by walls, but by the wandering patterns of the sheep.

    Each flock is ‘hefted’ or ‘heafed’ to their land: a process peculiar to fell sheep that is passed from one generation to the next. Hefting is central to the Herdwicks' health and their ability to thrive on this high land with its rocky crags, boggy patches and course grass, wet windy weather and long winters. The hefts have been established for hundreds of years. If the hefting system is broken, which is rare but can happen when stock numbers fall too low, it takes many, many years, and a huge effort on the part of a shepherd, to re-establish the heft.

    Walking the hefts of Lakeland farms is just one aspect of the Land Keepers project. It is helping us to get a feel for the land beneath our feet, as we also get to know some of the farmers. Our walk this week took us to Dock Tarn, beyond Fold Head Farm at Watendlath. We passed the farm buildings in the warmth of late evening sun, and were soon on our own. For company, we had only Herdwick ewes, neatly shorn, peering above the bracken, with their lambs following.

    We pitched our small tent on a patch of dry ground beside a tarn. From a crag nearby, we looked down into the valley of Langstrath, its broad green floor draped in the shadows of the sheer and barren crags along its sides. We were looking across land that’s part of a swathe of fells and valleys farmed by Joe & Hazel Relph of Yew Tree Farm in Borrowdale.

    As the sun sank behind the ridge of Dale Head in the west, we made our way back to the tent. The view across the tarn was sublime, the midges less so – they mounted a tortuous attack on every piece of uncovered flesh. Getting into the tent was the only sensible thing to do. The next morning, we packed up and strolled down to meet the Relphs, and of course, to sample the Herdwick meat they sell from sheep that they rear and nurture here on these fells – land where no other food grows.

    We couldn’t resist the pasties, and we went home with a boneless joint to cook up later with some new potatoes and fresh veg. Best lamb we ever had. Each mouthful was like a view, a memory, its taste is reminiscent of misty fells and the musty smell that’s left by sheep footprints in heather; of rocks and tumbling becks, and the subtle echo of sheeps’ calls on the wind. If you haven’t already tasted some, go for it, you won’t be disappointed.

    Follow the link to find out more about farming at Yew Tree Farm from Joe and Hazel Relph.


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