Lake District farmers plead for native sheep to be saved from cull

The wait
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Farmers are pleading for one of the country's most distinctive indigenous breeds of sheep, now at risk of mass cull in the heart of the Lake District, to be saved.

Farmers are pleading for one of the country's most distinctive indigenous breeds of sheep, now at risk of mass cull in the heart of the Lake District, to be saved.

The risk to the 750,000-strong Herdwick breed, which roams on fell land in the Lakes, was the most serious development in the foot-and-mouth crisis for Cumbria yesterday - despite the fact that the gravediggers and the Minister of Agriculture chose Carlisle, 40 miles to the north, for their foot-and-mouth war efforts.

If logistical capabilities had allowed infected animals to be buried faster than the pace at which disease has gripped north Cumbria in the past few weeks then a mass cull and firebreak, which was to have protected animals on the precious Lakeland fells, could have gone ahead weeks ago.

It was another miserable irony of the crisis that foot-and-mouth surfaced in the Lake District National Park - eight miles from Wordsworth's cottage at Grasmere - just as the bulldozers prepared the long-awaited grave between Wigton and Carlisle.

By lunchtime yesterday, the authorities, which had been loudly pronouncing that the Lakes were "open for business", conceded that the outbreak, on a farm close to Wrynose Pass which has 2,000 sheep grazing on open fells that stretch from Borrowdale to Ambleside, had set back their efforts. They had just begun to show faint signs of rekindling a tourist industry worth £964m last year.

"People are back at the perception that the area is closed," said a Lake District National Park spokeswoman, who reported "significant cancellations" from prospective tourists during the morning.

But commercial concerns were a near irrelevance to Bob Shaw, a contract shepherd who works the unfenced common land where Herdwick sheep roam.

"People don't come to this place to look at money and fancy buildings," said Mr Shaw, as he broke off from some of the Lakes' first lambing of the year. "They come to look at the countryside and see how it was born out of the stone."

Few aspects of the Lakes' appeal are more innate than the Herdwicks, whose 'hefting' instincts - passed from ewe to lamb - ensure they return to their own farmers when grazing on the inhospitable fell. The sheep, which are born black and whiten with age, are particularly hardened to the rocky, cold habitat of the fells and have a homing instinct that regularly will see them travel 40 miles.

Cruelly, it is their very capacity to roam that has now increased the prospect of them mixing with herds from the infected Black Hall farm, which is at Seathwaite in the Duddon Valley. A cull may therefore not be confined to farms neighbouring Black Hall but to the entire fell. At worst, the Herdwicks' removal may change the Lakeland ecology beyond recognition.

Mr Shaw pleaded with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to spare 100 Herdwick ewes out of every 400 if a mass cull does take place here. "You couldn't go anywhere else in Britain to replace them," he said.

About 100 Herdwick farmers are believed to have removed their herds from common fell land as a precaution - but not David and Heather Ellwood, who farm at Broughton-inFurness, five miles from Black Hall Farm. "There was nothing for them to eat here so we had to leave them out," Mrs Ellwood said. "We are devastated."

As Maff debated how to deal with the possible infection risk posed by sheep on common land (no decision was reached on the issue by last night) 49-year-old John Burkett, who farms at Little Langdale and has 400 Herdwicks up on the fell, tried to busy himself with some dry-stone walling. He returned to his farmhouse on Sunday to the telephone message and has thought of nothing else since. "I've just taken over my father's farm too," he said yesterday. "Now all I can do is wait. It's a question of how many will be culled."

Businesses near the idyllic Wrynose Pass route across to the Eskdale valley, where about 20 walkers were turned back at a police checkpoint yesterday morning, were dreading further outbreaks.

Ian and Jane Stephenson, proprietors of the Three Shires Inn, which is well known to Lakeland walkers, now have two guests - against the usual capacity of 20 - for next weekend. Mr Stephenson was exercised by the question of how slaughtered sheep might be disposed of: Great Orton might have its own graveyard but Black Hall Farm, with 1,100 sheep and 50 cattle, is a mile down a track and 10 miles up the inaccessible Duddon Valley.

"Burial's impossible because there's only a foot of top soil," said Mr Stephenson. "They're talking of burning them alongside the road but they say you need a ton of coal for each cow and they've got to get all the equipment in. It's not going to be easy down here."