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010. Hill Cows, Sheep and Hefted Flocks

Advice to Policy Makers

Listen to the Master Craftsmen

What is a Hill Cow ?

What is a Hill Sheep ?

Heafed or Hefted Flocks

by Richard Mawdsley

A compilation of three documents produced by Richard Mawdsley between April 2001 and November 2008 Richard Mawdsley M.R.A.C.

The Barn, Great Broughton, Cockermouth. Cumbria Telephone 01900 823284 November 2008

Promoted by Edmund Marriage – British Wildlife Management - Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



  • What is a “Hill Cow”?
  • There is no easy, cut and dried answer. Ideally, like the ‘hill sheep’, she is a cow that can spend the greater part of the year out on a rough pasture, with the minimum input or interference from man, and still bring in a strong healthy calf in the autumn.
  • But that is a simple answer isn't it?

A. No. Unlike the "hill sheep" there is no physiological difference between "hill cattle" and "lowland cattle"; they are all simply cattle. Consider, if you will, the geological and climatic variations throughout the United Kingdom, from the north of Scotland to Bodmin Moor in Cornwall via the Welsh Mountains; it all depends where you live and on local custom and practice.

Q 3. Are there any specific breeds of "hill cattle"?

A. Not really. The ‘Highland’, which is specific to the Northern and Western parts of Scotland and the Isles, the ‘Galloway’, in its various forms, from South West Scotland, North-West England and northern Pennines and the ‘Welsh Black’ are just better adapted to areas of high rainfall.

Q 4. So that's it, then. There are no specific breeds of hill cattle?

A. That's right. It all depends upon where you live, local custom and practice and economics. Because of all the geological and climatic variations in the United Kingdom, over the centuries cattle have been developed that are best suited to their particular environment. Those are our Native Breeds; The Highland, Galloway and Welsh Black, of course but also Shorthorns, Herefords, Angus and North Devons to name but a few.

Q 5. Do these various breeds have anything in common?

A. Yes. They all have the ability to convert roughage, you might prefer to think of it as poor pasture, into milk for the calf and meat to sell.

Q 6. But the poor pasture means that they mature slowly.

A. Yes, they do mature more slowly, which does not suit the modern trends forced upon agricultural production. Though they do produce meat of superior quality

Q 7. What economic reasons can there be for keeping them?

A. There are many good reasons, both economic and environmental:

  • These beasts eat the rougher grasses and can convert them into meat; grasses that are now, at best under-utilised, but in many cases wasted.
  • As the population increases perhaps some of the better land should be producing food for humans, not livestock.
  • The UK is currently short of around 250,000 tonnes of beef a year; meaning that amount must be imported. Ask yourself, can we as a nation afford that? The current estimate is that 80,000 head of cattle have been lost from the hills alone in recent years.
  • The cattle eat the long rough grass that sheep find unpalatable. They tend to graze in patches as the herd constantly moves. Sheep then eat the young green shoots that ensue, leaving a mosaic of long and short grass. Understand this: cattle and sheep are not in competition; they are complementary grazers.
    • This ‘two tier’ system benefits the upland birds, which do not want ‘wall-to-wall’ long vegetation. Witness the decline in the Ring Ouzel since the introduction of so called environmental schemes reduced the numbers of sheep to an unacceptably low level.
    • It benefits the delicate, and in many cases rare plants, that would otherwise be smothered. We have these wonderful plants because of the grazing animals, not despite them. Witness the decline in the Blue Gentians in Upper Teesdale after the imposition of an environmental scheme. (See above, and what happened on The Burren in Co. Clare when the grazing livestock were removed.)
    • Where there are animals there is dung. Dung attracts insects. Insects attract birds. Put simply; no beasts, no shit, no bugs, no birds.
    • There is a popular misconception that ‘turnover’ is related to, or even equates to profit. Bank managers like a fast ‘turnover’. The low input – low output systems associated with the traditional management of our Native Breeds has a lower, slower ‘turnover’; maybe a year or more longer. It does not mean that the profit is less. It may well be greater. An example of where lack of understanding causes problems:

      …On Dartmoor many farmers kept cattle out all the year round, where necessary taking out feed in winter. The environmentalists have told them to remove the beasts from the hill in winter. The cost of the bedding, the capital costs of the buildings to house the cattle and the machinery to deal with the accumulated by-products of housed cattle, to say nothing of the rules and regulations attached to the latter, now make the keeping of those cattle commercially non-viable. The cash incentive doesn’t cover the costs. So, the cattle are going. (Part of that 80,000)

Q 8. Would we be better off returning to more traditional and well tried methods?

A. Yes, though it’s nearly beyond the point of no return; it will take years. Too many of the basic breeding stock, and the stockmen who tended them, have been lost. Where ticks or mineral imbalances are a problem it can take up to five generations of cattle (15 years) to accustom them to that hill. That is fifteen years of losses and a low level of breeding success. That is not just my experience in Cumbria, but is reflected all around the country. Ask the Dartmoor men who lost cattle to the FMD culls in 2001.

Q 9. But, it is still possible, isn’t it?

A. Yes it is possible, but only if there is the political will. Before that must come understanding at the highest level.

  • To understand that as a dire economic necessity we need to utilise all our resources to produce more food.
  • To understand that cattle and sheep, together, are an unrivalled ecological and environmental ‘tool’. That the grazing animals and their keepers created the environment we all admire, yet which the ‘environmentalists’, in their ignorance, are hell bent on destroying.
  • And, perhaps even more important, the courage to admit that the present ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies that pay us not to produce food are sheer, politically inspired, economic and environmental madness.

Richard Mawdsley M.R.A.C.

November 2008


Hill sheep

(Q & A 1 – 7 Published by Rough Fell Sheep Breeders Association: 2007)

Q1: What is a “Hill Sheep”?

A: A “Hill Sheep” is one that can live all the year round on its mountain or moorland “Heaf” or “Heft”, with minimal input or interference from man and still bring in a fleece at Midsummer and a strong healthy lamb in the autumn.

Q2: So, what is the “heaf” or “heft”?

A: (etymology: Old Norse vb. Heftda (inf.) Heftdadra (past) “…acquired by right or prescription.”)

The “heft” or “heaf” is the finite area occupied by “the flock” (on open moor or mountain). It is also used to describe the territory of the individual sheep, within the flock boundary, which varies according to season and weather.

The sheep is attached to the heaf both by heredity and genetically.

Q3: In what way is the “Hill sheep” different from other types?

A: A “Hill sheep” is genetically and physiologically different from her lowland cousins in that:

She is better able to utilise poor vegetation to produce milk for the lamb and increase her own body weight.

She is able to lay down internal fat (in late summer) which can be utilised as a bodily food reserve, during lean times in winter, in a way that would kill a lowland sheep.

Q4: Do all “Hill sheep” have this ability in equal measure?

A: No. Under “traditional” management systems, practised by countless generations of shepherds/flock masters, sheep that did not have this genetic ability to a high degree would die during the winter or fail to breed; either way the line would die out.

Q5: What is the effect of “modern” management of the “hills flocks”?

A: Modern, rigid management systems, as exemplified by the so-called “environmental schemes” are slowly, but inexorably, destroying the traditional hefted flocks.

Q6: How is this happening?

A: The policy-makers do not understand the subject.

  • They do not know what a true “Hill Sheep” is (see Q1)
  • They do not understand what a “heaf” or “heft” is, especially the “genetic” connection of sheep to heft (see Q2) (Though since 2001 they have learned to use the words!)
  • They cannot comprehend the sheep’s dietary preferences.

Q7: How can a sheep be connected “genetically” to a tract of land?

A: The altitude, aspect, local climate and most important the underlying geology all affect the soil type. This in turn determines the vegetation and minerals (trace elements) available to the grazing animal.

Accept it: no two moors or mountains are exactly alike.

A flock established on a hill “beyond living memory” will thrive. They have come to terms with their environment.

Move that flock (as I have done) to a geologically and climatically different hill. All the neighbouring flocks, established “beyond living memory”, thrived. The newcomers did not. They encountered, what was to them, a mineral imbalance: lower levels than they were used to of copper, cobalt and selenium exacerbated by a high level of manganese.

Result; “swayback” in many lambs and “pine” in many of the ewes caused unprecedented mortalities or failures to breed.

Remedy; supply copper, cobalt and selenium supplements? Tried that; the high level of manganese negates the sheep’s ability to utilise these beneficial” trace elements”.

Conclusion: 15 years on, the families that were unable to adapt died out. (The losses were hard to bear)

Twenty-five years on the descendants of those survivors are now as healthily established as any other sheep on the hill.

Charles Darwin would agree, there is a genetic connection between the animal and the territory, my vet certainly does.

Q8: What are a sheep’s dietary preferences?

A: As food of first choice; sheep eat short, sweet grass.

Q9: But, don’t sheep eat heather and isn’t that “a bad thing”?

A: Sheep eat heather; in summer, as food of second choice if there is no suitable grass available; in the winter because there is no fresh grass so heather shoots are then both palatable and digestible. And no, it is not “a bad thing”. Sheep can eat up to 20 percent of a season’s new growth of heather shoots with no detriment to the health of the heather.

(Progress towards defining ecologically-sustainable grazing management: the 'Moorland Biomass' and 'Heather Suppression' projects Aspects of Applied Biology 58, 2000: Vegetation management in changing landscapes By FW KIRKHAM 2000)

Q10: So, where is the “lack of understanding”?

A: In order to “protect” the heather (a laudable aim in itself) from the effects of perceived “overgrazing” (debatable) farmers/shepherds are paid to reduce the stock numbers on the hills: in most cases dramatically. What might be considered a sensible level of winter stocking is now imposed on us in summer, with further paid reductions in winter.

Q11: What is the problem? You are paid aren’t you?

A: If insufficient sheep are on the hills in summer to keep on top of the growing grass the more rampant varieties grow long, coarse and unpalatable, in the process smothering the more delicate plants thus reducing the biodiversity, at the same time forcing the sheep to eat heather; the very plant that the conservationists want to protect. The more sheep that are taken off, the faster this occurs.

Two other problems have cropped up; one completely unforeseen. In parts of the Central Lake District so many sheep have been removed that the heafing system seems to have broken down. Sheep are straying for miles, turning up in valleys where they haven’t been seen before. It seems that there is a critical flock mass below which it is inadvisable to go.

The second problem was foreseeable; it’s just that no-one bothered to ask the men on the ground. By reducing sheep numbers, and by sending them away, the ewes become fitter. The fitter the ewe the more lambs she will conceive (the contrariness of sheep). Twins are an embarrassment on a hill farm. They cannot be put onto the hill, the grazing isn’t good enough. Therefore they must be kept on the “inbye” all summer. But, the inbye is to provide grazing for cattle and grass to be conserved for winter keep. To grow the extra grass to support the twins and their mothers we have to use more fertiliser…which the conservationists would much rather we didn’t!

Yes, we are paid. We are paid to do something we know is wrong and that hurts. But, such is the state of British Agriculture we cannot afford not to take the money. That is an even more painful pill to swallow.

Q12: Surely it cannot be bad to be paid to remove sheep from the hills in winter?

A: Well done! Full circle: go back to Q1.

By removing sheep from the hills in winter and sending them to the lowlands we are keeping alive those strains that nature would not otherwise permit to live. We will then have no choice but to breed from them and their offspring thus accelerating the process of decline.

In another three or four sheep generations (six to eight years) the hills will be populated by a lot of Hill Sheep “look-alikes” that will be unable to fulfil their proper function should the “environmental money” run out, or the nation realises it needs affordable home produced food once again.

Richard Mawdsley M.R.A.C



Appendix 1

Letter sent to the Prime Minister.

12 Apr '01

Dear Sir.

Heafed or Hefted Flocks

The landscape of the British uplands that we like to regard as our heritage, that tourists love to visit, written about by Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott, was shaped by men and their sheep. The Heafed or Hefted flocks of the Welsh Mountains, the Lake District, and the Pennines from High Peak to the Borders, the Cheviots, Galloway Hills and the Scottish Highlands.

The Heaf or Heft is the territory occupied by a flock on open hill. The individual sheep live and move within these boundaries according to season and weather. Each lamb inherits its mother's patch and out on the hill it is possible to pick out family groups made up of different generations.

The heafing of flocks involves a lot more than teaching them the boundaries, which are rarely more than a stream, a ridge, or a rough track. That alone, from personal experience, takes from three to five years. From my yard gate one can walk over hills and mires for five miles as the crow flies before coming to the next fence. To drive from the same yard right round the fell and back is a thirty five mile trip. That gives some idea of the scale of some of the commons on which there are many heafs.

In the first years the losses are high. Sheep are drowned in the streams during spates because they haven't found the easy fords. Sheep drown in the bogs because they haven't learned the right paths through them. Sheep are buried in the snows because they don't know the safe shelters.

The next ten to fifteen years is spent weeding out those families which don't thrive on their 'new' heaf. It takes generations to build up a tolerance to the local diseases and mineral imbalances.

The sheep to be found on all the British fells and mountains are the lineal descendants of sheep that have been on those same hills for the best part of a thousand years. Alterations in breed type have been brought about slowly by introducing different rams, NOT by changing the female line.

Leaving aside the Lake District's Herdwick Sheep which are unique and already depleted by a quarter in the course of the current epidemic, the other breeds are nearly as difficult to replace. The main problem is the weather. Here in the Lakes we have an average rainfall of 1500 mm. [5 ft.]. The Western slopes of the Pennines are wet and have the same breeds of sheep, but already so many have been destroyed because of F&M disease that there will be no surplus for many years. The East slopes and the Yorkshire Dales have splendid sheep but they are bred to withstand snow NOT incessant rain and wind. North Yorkshire Moors produce good sheep but they've been bred to withstand the bitter cold and snows from the North Sea. Sheep taken from a dry hill to a wet one don't thrive. Sheep moved from a low fell to a mountain won't utilise the higher ground. The reason we have such a diversity of breeds in the British Isles is that each developed as the best suited to its particular environment.

The heafed flocks are, I believe, unique to the British Isles. Should they be lost or seriously depleted, through disease or neglect, we will also lose not only the people with their special skills who tend them, but also our upland landscape. The hills will revert to scrub, gorse, thorns and stunted, wind blasted trees. These flocks are part of a priceless heritage, are irreplaceable and must be protected, not at some time in the future, but NOW. Those who live and work in the uplands, through all seasons and who understand them, must be allowed a dominant voice.

Richard Mawdsley MRAC, April 2001


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