Beatrix Potter sheep given new lease of life: National Trust exhibition based on Lakeland author will help 14 farms. Oliver Gillie reports

BEATRIX POTTER and her shepherd, Tom Storey, have been brought back to life by the National Trust in a show made to promote the trust's work in the Lake District. Peter Rabbit and other characters are also helping.

Beatrix Potter - Mrs Heelis after she married a Hawkshead solicitor - gave 14 farms to the National Trust. One of the conditions of her bequest was that Herdwick flocks should continue to be raised. But it is difficult to make money out of the breed and with the fall in agricultural incomes the farms no longer even pay the expense of maintaining buildings, stone walls and river banks.

The trust had to provide pounds 5m between 1987 and 1989 from central funds to maintain properties in the Lake District. To redress the balance the trust is launching what might be called a Beatrix Potter experience in Keswick. Visitors are enticed into the show by a window display of two stuffed Herdwick sheep tended by Beatrix Potter, wearing tweed jacket, long tweed skirt and clogs.

Some of the money brought in from this and other projects will go indirectly to support Herdwick flocks - which Potter believed had special qualities. They are a tough breed and are said to survive for up to 30 days in a snow drift.

But their wiry and waterproof wool is too scratchy for most people to wear in sweaters and costs farmers more to shear than they get back from sales. The National Trust has found a company that makes the wool into carpet, but it almost has to give the wool away.

The Herdwick meat, with its gamey, heathery, taste is not valued in Britain, although it has achieved fair prices on the continent since the war in Yugoslavia cut off supplies of Balkan lamb.

Stan Edmondson, 66, who keeps a flock of more than 1,000 Herdwick sheep on one of Beatrix Potter's former farms at Seathwaite, Borrowdale, said: 'A few years ago we thought the Herdwicks would slip away. But the price of lamb has doubled since January - pounds 51 was paid for a 32kg (70lb) hoggett (last year's lamb) at Cockermouth last week - the highest price ever paid for sheep at market.'

Beatrix Potter's books go out of copyright this December, 50 years after her death, but the trust intends to license the Potter concept and plough back the profits. Beatrix Potter pioneered the marketing of Wedgwood china with images of her animals and Royal Doulton figurines which became collectors' items from the 1940s onwards.

(Photograph omitted)

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