Fell Farming in Cumbria
Despite all the changes seen since Mesolithic man first arrived here, farming has remained a constant in the area. The landscape itself has been altered by farming, the Mesolithic tree clearances giving grazing space for livestock, and grazing preventing the growth of trees on the fells to produce the mountain vistas we know and love today. Views such as this, taken from Thornthwaite and looking towards Skiddaw, would be radically different without the symbiosis between farmers and the fells.
Small farms are the lifeblood of the Lake District, their owners and tenants taking on not just a way of earning an income but the stewardship of the land they work. The living from fell farms has always been difficult, but in recent years has proved particularly problematic.
The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 hit Cumbria the hardest of all the counties: some 3,500 farms lost some or all of their stock. Because of the government’s slaughter policy, a third of the county’s livestock were killed, including over a million sheep. For all, the blow was devastating; for some farmers, literally fatal.
There was also a real worry that with the loss of so many hefted sheep – sheep so used to their local fell and fell conditions that they need no fences when grazing the mountains in the summer – and the loss of so many Herdwicks, Swaledales and Rough Fells, that the character and landscape of the Lake District would be forever altered.
Fortunately, farmers and their stock have proved their resilience, and many farmers have also diversified through farmers’ markets and the like; the revival of interest in food provenance and the need to support our local farmers has also helped their survival. Traditionally, because of the conditions in which they live, the so-called “light lambs” produced by hill farms have been problematic to sell, as they do not fit the standard size expected by big meat finishers – the abattoirs and butchers. This was exacerbated by the withdrawal of the Eastern European markets following export restrictions on livestock. Fortunately, however, several craft butchers and restaurants have recognised the delicious sweetness of the meat from fell lamb, and the market for them is (slowly) regaining strength. The Herwick Sheep Breeders' Association Website has more information about this traditional breed, with a list of fell farmers, some supplying mail-order lamb. And you can also find local fell lamb at the splendid Keswick market, Thursdays (smaller) and Saturdays by the Moot Hall.
So – choose restaurants that feature fell lamb (for example, Middle Ruddings in Braithwaite), and enjoy its flavour whilst congratulating yourself that you are helping to preserve the Lake District itself!