• #30 Fell Gather Event at Grasmere, August 7 2014

    Today, the sun shone strong, making the vale of Grasmere glisten green. From a field on the edge of the village, Silver Howe looked splendid above Easedale. But we weren’t here for walking – we were here for an event celebrating upland farming. The Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association were staging a Fell Gather event at Knott Houses, a farm run by Peter Bland. Peter is a member of a family that has for generations been respected for breeding superior Herdwick sheep, and those on show today, ranging from dark brown lambs born this April to prize-winning tups (rams), showed off the attributes of the iconic herdwick brilliantly.

    The event was arranged to introduce non-farmers to the ins and outs of upland farming. In the pens, with a selection of Peter Bland’s sheep around him, Will Rawling (who farms close to the west coast in Ennerdale) gave a running commentary. While Peter sheared sheep, and their fleeces were lobbed into the watching crowd, Will spoke about the practice of shearing (with electric shears) and clipping (hand shears). He talked about the way the Herdwicks change colour over time, from black to brown to grey; where their name comes from (the Norse ‘wick’ means ‘clearing’, while ‘herd’ is a gathering of livestock); the farming year; the way farming is balanced with biodiversity; the market for Herdwick products; and more.

    With the sheep clipped, Jean Wilson joined in to demonstrate the preparation of a sheep for showing and for sale. Out came the hot soapy water and she washed its heads and legs to bring out the white. Then she used raddle to add a rusty red colour to the sheep’s back. It reminded me of the time I helped James Rebanks to prepare his tups for sale – very satisfying it was to see a dull grey transform to white, and the sheep take on a lordly appearance with the raddle. A farmer mentioned recently that he knew someone who spent 40 hours using tweezers on a Swaledale to ensure there were no white hairs sullying the darker areas, or vice versa. It gets to be a serious business when you’re proud of your stock.

    Clipper's Tools

    Listening to talk of chops, roasts, stews and kebabs and seeing the sheep from the inside out, might have once made me slightly uneasy. But it doesn’t any more – it’s the natural progression from life to death and it’s good to witness this emphasis on maintaining and marketing a high quality product that’s not only delicious, but is also the backbone of the living landscape of Cumbria. The sheep on the fells may unwittingly be heading ultimately to abattoir, shop and plate, but their presence is part of a culture and passion for shepherding that is interwoven with the hills as surely as the weather that continues to stock the lakes and keep the valleys green.

    Gaining PDO status for Lakeland Herdwick meat is not something that has happened over night. There has been a long journey to get here – a journey that has taken just over ten years. The first seeds were sown by Herdwick specialist Geoff Brown with farmers including Dorothy Wilkinson from Tilberthwaite. Over the years many others have pressed on with the cause, including vet Amanda Carson, members of the Farmer Network including Will Rawling, Spencer Hannah from the Herdy Company, Mary Houston from Taste Cumbria, and Prince Charles, who is a staunch supporter. In fact the Princes Countryside Fund continues to support hill farming in Cumbria and the development of a brand for Herdwicks as the guardians of the fells.

    But of course it’s not all about showing and pride. If it weren’t for the meat market, there would be no sheep on these hills. So this event was a showcase for livestock and meat - further down the field, meat taken from sheep reared right here at Knott Houses was being served. Pulled shoulder in a roll with pickled cabbage and delicious sauces; chops done to your liking; terrine. The meat is distinctively rich, and very lean – that’s what you get from a sheep who works hard to stay fit and well in the challenging terrain and weather of the central Lake District fells.

    And this distinction is being recognised. Lakeland Herdwick is the first breed of sheep in the UK to receive the coveted recognition of PDO or ‘protected designation of origin’ for its lamb and mutton. It qualifies for PDO when it’s born here, bred here and slaughtered here, and this journey from fell to plate, ensures the meat will reach a high standard. It is being ordered and celebrated in top London restaurants including the Shard. Strangely, there is less take up for certified local (and delicious) Herdwick meat in Cumbria. Recent surveys showed that there’s a bit of complacency, even apathy, among local restaurants, who feel so sure of a high through-put of tourists that they’re not rushing to offer something special. In addition to this, if you look at the figures of Herdwick meat produced, and Herdwick meat sold in restaurants, they don’t match – which is why the establishment of the PDO status is so welcome. If it’s certified, it’s Herdwick. If it doesn’t bear the mark, it may not be, which would leave someone thinking they’d tasted Herdwick when they haven’t. If you have, you’ll know how different it tastes from non-Herdwick lamb from unspecified sources.

    Following the Fell Gather, which drew in more than 400 people, and was also a showcase for wool products, the event continued in the barns set above the field for farmers, chefs, restauranteurs, National Park officers and others involved in the farming sector. There was a lot of chat, but it wasn’t just about catching up. Steve Powdrill of Eblex (The organisation of the English Beef and Sheep industry) gave a presentation about getting the most, in terms of quality meat, out of your sheep. He talked about the classification of lamb shed light on ways to look at a live animal, and see the cuts that would come from the dead animal: when to know it’s at its optimum; how to recognise too little or too much fat; which cuts the public want; etc.

    For the farmers, most of what was said would have felt like common sense, although there is still a tendency for markets to call for higher weights even though this may mean a higher quantity of fat (which in the long run is neither good for profit nor for consumption). Steve explained carefully how to gauge the fat-muscle ratio. Phrases like ‘feeling the fatness of the jigger’ and knowing that it’s right if the ‘docks are just past twelve o’clock’ began to make sense to me with the assistance of pictures and models. (if you want to learn more, there’s a brochure on line at the Eblex website).

    Tim Brown serves up Herdwick: pulled shoulder, chops & terrine

    After the presentation, beer and conversation flowed with the gentle breeze that crept in as the sun dipped. Talk turned to the value of the meat and of the sheep on the fells, and the weekend weather and potential for gathering in the stragglers that have yet to be sheared. After a few weeks away from the fells, coming back to the county and immediately heading to this event felt like a reconnection with the land and its community: Blands, Dickinsons, Bensons, Hartleys, Rawling, Richardsons, Rebanks, Wilsons ... There’s common ground in stride and breath, and scent of sheep shit in the pens became woven with voices and laughter to bind the air around us. A sense of belonging, cradled in the yard.

    I passed Peter Bland a picture of a tup, a close-up shot that Rob took at the Keswick May Fair in 2012. I wasn’t sure whose hands they were tucked beneath the white face of the ram. As soon as he saw the picture, Peter smiled. ‘That's my hands,’ he said, ‘and Kevin's tup - almost won the Edmonson cup that one did.’ He walked over to a group of four farmers and held it up. ‘See this Kevin, we're famous!’

    Famous, maybe not, but in time the Herdwick products, including meat and the wool that is being made into tweeds, jackets, bags, carpets and pillows, may become better known and in greater demand. Behind the scenes of the gentle perseverance and the predictable yearly calendar of shepherds a lot of work is going on to develop these products. This is not just a matter of pride. Establishing kudos is a powerful way of helping to ensure an economically viable future for the hill farmers and their flocks, and their continuation on the fells of Cumbria.

    LINKS

    Taste Cumbria

    Princes Countryside Fund

    Herdy Company

    Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association

    Airey's Farm Shop (and abattoir for PDO Herdwick lamb and mutton)

    Wools of Cumbria Carpets

    Shepherdess (tweeds, clothes, bags)

    Woolly Rug Company

    Woolclip

    Taste the Difference

    If you haven’t already tasted Herdwick, why not try some? It’s available in several locations in Cumbria, notably The Flock Inn, Borrowdale; Yew Tree Farm, Coniston; Fornside Farm, St John’s in the Vale; Airey’s, High Newton; and Booths do stock it. Cook it gently – it needed take long: pan fry a chop, or roast a small joint in 30 minutes – and savour it at leisure.

    PDO - Protected Designation of Origin

    Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) is one of the regimes under the Protected Geographical Status (PGS) legal framework defined in European Union law to protect the names of regional foods.

    The Regulations for PDO cite consumer demand for quality foodstuffs and identify a number of goals for the protection regime:

    • the promotion of products with specific characteristics, particularly those coming from less-favoured or rural areas;

    • the improvement of the income of farmers, in return for a "genuine effort to improve quality";

    • the retention of population in rural areas;

    • the provision of clear and succinct information to consumers regarding product origin.

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