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What is hefting?

02 April 2020

There are parts of the English Lake District's World Heritage story that warrant further explanation. The traditional methods of farming the fells and mountains include hefting, a way of farming that is incredibly important in the Lakes, in the past but also now and into the future. Below Mervyn Edwards MBE, former upland farming adviser for MAFF, Defra and Natural England, and now member of the English Lake District World Heritage Site Technical Advice Group explains what hefting is.

"Hefting is the basis for shepherding on unenclosed mountain and moorland in the British Isles. This uses the homing and herding instincts of hill sheep making it possible for individual flocks owned by different farmers to graze ‘open’ fells with no physical barriers between them.

Hefted sheep, or heafed sheep as they are also known in Cumbria, have a tendency to stay together in the same group and on the same local area of fell (the heft or heaf) throughout their lives. These traits are passed down from the ewe to her lambs when grazing the fells – in essence the ewes show their lambs where to graze. Hefted flocks are self-maintained flocks. The female lambs are kept to replace older ewes, avoiding the need to buy in female sheep from other flocks. The sheep are acclimatised to a particular terrain, weather conditions and diseases that prevail in the area. They are familiar with the ways to find shelter and, at gathering (bringing sheep down from the fells) times, the way to the farmstead and back to their grazing ground.

More than 60% of the Lake District fell is common land, shared grazing areas where farmers have one or more flocks related to their registered rights of common. The position of their hefts have been developed by custom and practice related to the location of farms.

Where flocks share the same access gate to the fell, there can be large overlaps to the hefts on the lower ground. These flocks are often gathered together and separated at a set of sheep pens near the gate.

Alongside common land, the Lake District has privately owned (freehold) fells. Some are enclosed by fences or walls and some are ‘open’ to adjoining properties or common land where there are no physical boundaries between them. They are normally occupied by single flocks although the larger ones are often divided into different groups (stocks) of sheep and managed separately. The practice of hefting is essential on these unenclosed fells as it is on common land. Less so on the smaller enclosed fells but the flocks are often self-maintained so that they are acclimatised to the conditions of their fell. Therefore, these flocks can also be deemed to be hefted.

Gathering flocks on the fell is aided by the instinct of sheep to collect with each other, sheep belonging to the same heft. They naturally head towards the fell gate. The instinct is based on safety in numbers against a threat of harm (fear and flight).The flock must be gathered at least three times over the summer and autumn to undertake routine sheep husbandry tasks for sheep welfare such as shearing, parasite control and weaning the lambs.

The different flocks graze separately in balance with each other at about the same level of stocking although there are often small overlaps on the boundaries and some sheep are inclined to stray. In effect, the flocks are ‘bouncing’ off each other, remaining on their recognised grazing area. However, if a flock is removed or reduced the sheep from adjoining hefts will migrate to fill the vacant space, naturally to take advantage of the grazing or kinder conditions. Occasionally, a new flock is established or one is expanded which can cause boundaries to contract, i.e. to make room for the new heft. These actions can be disruptive and result in large overlaps of hefts until a new balance is achieved. In the same way, where graziers agree to reduce the size of their flocks, there is some disruption as flocks adapt to the change (even where the levels of reductions are the same).

Sheep will also move to sites of supplementary feeding and away from stormy weather (e.g. over a watershed to shelter from the wind or driving snow), but they eventually return to their familiar grazing area. The stability of hefting boundaries is more effective at higher levels of stocking (provided there is no overgrazing to diminish the body condition of sheep). The opposite also applies, i.e. boundaries tend to be less effective at low levels of
stocking which result in a higher proportion of strays. All this is difficult to measure and can only be properly recognised by the shepherd and graziers operating on the same area of fell. It is a subjective assessment and the factors involved will vary from one fell to another depending on ground conditions.

Hefting boundaries can breakdown when one or more large flocks are removed from the fell, particularly at low levels of stocking. They can also breakdown by ongoing reductions in the size of flocks such as often requested by agri-environment schemes. These result in movement of sheep over wide areas of fell resulting in high levels of strays and difficulty in gathering. Smaller groups of sheep belonging to the same flock lose sight of each other and sometimes run in different directions, often misled by sheep belonging to other flocks. Consequently, graziers are less likely to gather their flocks in one operation. They may have to go back to the fell at least
once more to complete the gather. This situation also applies to the collection of strays, graziers having to spend more time travelling for more sheep and to places further afield.

The hefting process can be undermined by the practice of off-wintering breeding ewes on lowland pastures. Some graziers worry that their flocks become less resilient to storm conditions and produce too many twin lambs (due to higher conception rates achieved by grazing kinder land). Whilst more lambs can improve incomes, a high proportion of twin lambs reduces the scope for ewes to transmit the hefting instinct to their lambs (twin bearing ewes remain on low ground pastures until at least shearing time in order to receive adequate nutrition for rearing their lambs)."

This article has been written in consultation with the Federation of Cumbria Commoners.

Pictures © National Trust Images John Malley and Paul Harris

About the author

Lake District World Heritage Site

Coordinating World Heritage Site communications on behalf of the Lake District National Park Partnership