There had been 20-years away, working for highly respected and successful Herdwick breeder Anthony Hartley, at Turner Hall in Seathwaite. Andrew learned new ways, different techniques and his own methods evolved.
The Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association celebrated its centenary year in 2016. In Andrew they have a fervent advocate and family associations that cannot be over-estimated.
“I enjoy working with fell sheep. It’s what I’ve always known and done, a part of me and it is my life,” he explains.
“I hope I bring the skills I have acquired, along with my passion for farming, to the role. Anthony had a great eye for stock and a lot of knowledge, which I’m putting into practice here.
Herdwicks are the Lake District and shaped the landscape we see today. Without them, uplands and fells would be overrun with bracken, brambles, scrub and gorse.
“We need to manage this environment to maintain it for farming as well as public enjoyment. It’s always been a changing landscape, once the site of industry, quarries and mines.”
Andrew said those who argued that the Lake District has been ‘sheep wrecked’ were entitled to their opinions, but they were no more valid than his own.
“We are land guardians, environmental stewards and dedicated stock people. There have been massive reductions in flock numbers due to Higher Level Stewardship subsidies, which compensate for lower stock levels.
“I have only about 35 percent of the sheep my grandad had. There’s been a 30 percent decline in numbers over the last 20 years.
“There was overstocking in the past, but we have gone far enough to redress the balance. If there were even fewer sheep it wouldn’t be worth farming. I think there should be more emphasis on food production.
“There needs to be a middle ground between farming and protecting the environment. Farming has helped create the landscape that is enjoyed so much.”
Andrew argues that because Herdwicks are unique to the Lakeland fells, it is important to keep a reasonable gene pool going. He says he ‘spoils’ his, bringing them off harsh winter hillsides and putting them on lower ground.
“It all adds to time and cost. Birk Howe has 190 acres, we rent land in Little Langdale and at John Ruskin’s old Coniston house, Brantwood; we’ve done that for three generations. The hogs winter in Whitehaven.”
His 300 Herdwicks belong to the National Trust, he has 100 Swaledales of his own. Some say he is too soft on them, but production levels are good, resulting in more lambs.
Andrew is one of only a handful of hill farmers left who ‘clout’ young ewes. The ‘chastity belt’ technique involves stitching soft cloth to the backend of shearlings - known as twinters - to prevent them falling pregnant, giving them chance to mature and acclimatise.
He explains: “I pick the best and fittest of the previous year’s lambs to clout. It’s worth the effort. Some leave it to chance, but I like to do the best I can.”
An uncertain future hangs over the industry; Andrew is worried about the prospects for all hill farmers.
He wonders how it will be for his son, John, now eight, if he wants to follow infamily footsteps. The hard life, strenuous workload, 16-hour days at lambing timeandlack of income do not add up to a dream job.
Andrew toyed with a career in joinery, but the pull of sheep and hills was too strong to resist. He met his wife, Louise, when she travelled from her native Zimbabwe and ended up working at Little Langdale’s Three Shires Inn.
Lakeland life in one of earth’s most dramatic and beautiful valleys could not be more different to the flat, hot mining territory in her own strife-torn country. She says she is grateful to have ended up in such an ‘awe inspiring’ place.
“I’m not as hands-on as I would like to be on the farm, but love being out with Andrew and John and the sheep. I had nine pet lambs this year – and they all lived. I was very pleased with that.”
Louise provides vital income from pub work and says the family is pleased to be at Birk Howe, carving out a future.
She explained: “Andrew doesn’t do holidays, hasn’t been abroad, hates motorways and will only go away for three days at a time. He doesn’t like the unknown and has no hobbies. His life is his work and he is content with that.”
A pint in the Three Shires and a bit of telly is enough.
Andrew added: “We haven’t strayed far. Dad only ever lived here and at Wilson Place, half a mile away. That’s where grandad is as well.
But we live in changing times and I hope World Heritage can help protect our way of life and traditions.
“Only half the valley is lived in now, the rest used as second homes and holiday houses. Incomes are low and property prices very high, making it hard for working families. There are only 30 children left in the school.”
Never once has Andrew taken for granted the scenery visitors travel from the four corners of the globe to enjoy. Classic scenes of Wetherlam, Lingmoor, Great Carrs, the old copper mines, quarries and famed cathedral cave are on the doorstep.
He loves Blake Rigg, with its unfolding views down the valley. Tiny, twisting lanes leading to Wrynose Pass cause problems though, not just with heavy tourist traffic, but vehicles destined for Sellafield - sent via satnav from the M6.
Access is to Birk Howe is taxing. Wagons cannot get into the yard, making deliveries difficult. Dating back to around 1600, it is thought to have been designed to house animals and people under the same roof. It teems atmosphere and significant historic features.
Just the place on a winter’s night to settle in front of the fire and reflect. Did Beatrix Potter deliberately pop a young Birkett boy’s football and was she quite as diminutive and frightening as they recalled?
Whatever the reality, her commitment to Herdwicks, the land and the Lake District have been proudly shared and preserved by is this dedicated family of hill farmers.
Article by Karen Barden