Traditional breed: Herdwick sheep

I thought it’d be good to tell you a little about each breed we plan to sell. To begin our ‘Traditional breed’ posts, we discuss a breed of sheep we have history with, Herdwicks.

In a past life, I was a manager at pub in a valley in deepest-darkest Lake District, Eskdale. It had no phone signal, 200 locals and thousands of sheep, all Herdwicks. They were my introduction to traditional breeds and mutton, and because of that have a very special place in my heart.

Herdwick comes from the Old Norse word ‘herdvyck’ meaning sheep pasture. As you’d expect from the derivation of its name, the common theory is that they were brought over during the Viking raids of western England during 10th — 11th centuries.

Recent evidence backs the Norse-origin theory. A study published last year found that Herdwicks have a primitive genome shared only with very few breeds worldwide, and none on the UK mainland ones. The common ancestor that gives this genome was most likely from around Sweden, Finland, or the northern islands of Orkney and Iceland.

Along with close cousins Rough Fell and Dalesbred, Herdwick sheep are incredibly sustainable. They can live outside in virtually any conditions, thrive on sparse grazing and are very disease resistant.

In the words of Amanda Carson, a vet and Secretary of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association: “They enable low input farming and food production on land unsuitable for other forms of agriculture. They are a tremendous asset and we should look after and promote their farming for future national food security.”

Their outdoor life and unique heritage means they feature in many an argument about which breed is Britain’s tastiest. The meat is more succulent, tender and tasty than conventional lamb, without tasting sheepy. To understand what I am going about, you need to try it — or read a blog written by someone more adept at describing flavour than me.

Herdwicks really come into their own when you let them live a little longer. I would hold out until they are around two-years old, in Cumbria this isn’t considered mutton, or they reach actual mutton age, which will be around five-years old.

Herdwick mutton, if looked after by the farmer, abattoir and butcher, will cook just like lamb. For example, you can have a rare leg that is beautifully tender. I particularly like making Carpaccio with the cannon. The taste is massively enhanced by its time plodding round the fells.

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