Think of Beatrix Potter, and it’s probably bunnies, rather than sheep, that spring to mind. But the creator of Peter Rabbit’s greatest passion was actually another quintessential feature of the Lake District landscape, its native Herdwick sheep.
Realising the importance of these hardy, granite-fleeced beasts in controlling the scrub that would otherwise take over the region’s heather-clad hillsides, Potter dedicated the last years of her life to farming Herdwick sheep from her Lakeland farm.
Now another woman farmer, 33-year-old Caroline Watson, has stepped into Potter’s shoes – almost literally. With her husband Jon, she farms Herdwick sheep and Belted Galloway cattle at Yew Tree Farm, nestled in the mountains north of Coniston Water, which was owned by Potter in the 1930s.
“By rearing traditional breeds such as the Herdwick, we can provide consumers with delicious high-quality meat while at the same time helping to preserve the breeds and the landscape they live in,” says Caroline, scampering up Holme Fell behind the farm, in search of her livestock. “It would be sad if the sheep disappeared from the fells.”
Full of flavour
The key to the Herdwicks’ wonderfully tender, flavoursome marbled meat is the fact that they take life slowly – they are slaughtered at one year old, compared to ‘standard’ lamb, which is killed at four to six months. “The other reason is that they graze on all of this,” says Caroline, pointing to the heather, bilberries and herbs that sprout from the rocks around us. “This mixed diet gives their flesh an incredible, almost gamey, flavour. It’s high in beneficial Omega 3 too.”
Caroline and Jon took over the 600-acre farm in 2002, after moving up from Yorkshire. Jon worked as a farm manager near Malham, while Caroline was a ranger with the Yorkshire Dales National Park. They wanted their own farm in the Lakes but had virtually given up looking, when Beatrix Potter’s old farm – owned by the National Trust since her death in 1943 – suddenly became available.
“We dismissed it at first because we thought it was too small, and the land too poor,” says Jon. “It had fewer than 40 acres of decent meadow land, and we were put off by its proximity to the road to Coniston. Actually that’s proved to be a saving factor, because people see the sign and pop in to buy meat.”
Jon and Caroline couldn’t have started at a more difficult time. Foot and mouth had just decimated much of Cumbria’s livestock, so it was very expensive to buy. “Everything was selling at a premium,” says Caroline. “Under the terms of the lease, we had to keep 100 Herdwicks. We couldn’t afford Swaledales or Mules, the other local breeds, so to make up the flock we bought 200 Scottish Blackface, which were a third of the price.”
Caroline soon realised why the Blackface were so cheap. The sheep struggled to cope with the area’s vicious ticks and by the end of the first season, Caroline had lost a quarter of her flock. Slowly she restocked with Herdwicks, whose tough shaggy coats were better able to withstand both the ticks and the long, punishing winters.
The couple started by selling live lambs, but soon saw they could add value if they butchered and sold the animals themselves. They now sell around 15 lambs a week, most of them wholesale to restaurants, with the rest being sold either at the farm gate or via mail order through Heritage Meats.
Caroline’s hope is that local restaurants will shout about the fact that the lamb on their menus is local Herdwick, so that customers will in turn appreciate that they are eating a special meat. “If people want to support traditional farming and traditional breeds such as the Herdwick, they have to eat them,” she says. “No one is going to keep them for fun. It’s extremely tough making a living from sheep farming here.”
She admits the Beatrix Potter connection helps. “The Britannia Inn at Elterwater, just up the road, sell three times as much lamb if they say it’s from Potter’s Yew Tree Farm. People like knowing where their food is from.”
Why meat’s not cheap
Strictly speaking, the meat Caroline sells is not actually lamb but hogget, the term used for animals one to two years old. Because they live for two winters, the sheep are more expensive to rear than commercially reared ones, but Caroline believes it’s worth it for the extra flavour. Local chefs, such as Colin Akrigg at the Michelin-starred Sharrow Bay Hotel restaurant on Ullswater, who is an enthusiastic regular customer, clearly agree.
For Caroline that’s the ultimate satisfaction: knowing that she’s producing a first-class product that’s been reared in harmony with its surroundings. She also believes it’s a sensible use of poor land. “This is precisely how this landscape should be used,” she says. “We should produce meat on land that’s not good enough to grow crops on, not on arable land. People say we need to produce more food for our growing population, so why are we not using our uplands better?”
Will other Lakeland farmers, traditionally staunchly conservative, follow Caroline’s lead and take pride again in their native sheep? “If they see that it adds up, I think they will, especially if subsidies [based on acreage] are cut,” she says. But the price will have to be right. “At present meat is absurdly cheap. We consumers should be paying around three times what we currently pay, if we want meat that’s been properly reared. Many butchers around here are having to close because they can’t compete with the supermarkets.”
Eager to do my bit to support traditional breeds, I head for the hotel at nearby Eltermere, where the chef has devised a duo of lamb using two different cuts, served with a delicious cabbage-wrapped faggot made from the offal. It may cost a few pennies more than intensively reared four-month-old lamb, but its flavour and texture are exquisite. I’ll have another helping please. Beatrix Potter and Caroline Watson would both be proud.