By Ruth Watkins

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The extensive grazing of hefted sheep on the commonland of Britain is a unique phenomenon in Europe, enabling livestock to be kept in unfenced areas without constant shepherding. Each hefted flock has its own territory and is self-confining to that area, a heft. Extended areas are divided into numerous hefts, with each flock knowing its own area and returning to it after lambing, veterinary treatment or other husbandry requirements.


Commonland is typically pasture over which common grazing rights are exercised. It is unfenced, and consists of lowland and upland habitat, much of it moorland and mountainous. There is a great diversity of breeds grazing the hefts. Many are specific to a particular area and derive from ancient sheep brought over by invaders such as the Neolithic peoples, Celts, Romans and Vikings and their descendants have remained in remote places on the Western seaboard of Europe. The sheep breeds, the practice of hefting and the biodiverse habitats that have emerged as a consequence are in some cases well over a thousand years old. They provide valuable environmental, agricultural and social benefits but these are now at risk as the result of the foot and mouth control policy adopted by the UK government during and after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak.


The word heft is derived from the Old Norse word 'hefda' which means 'to acquire by right or prescription (hefdad is the past tense). In welsh the word used for hefted sheep is 'cynefin' (pronounced kinevin) and means sheep 'with their own habitat'.


The system of grazing hefted sheep on unfenced commonland either the whole year round or in the warmer months only is an ancient one. No shepherding is needed. In Cumbria hefted flocks may go back a thousand years to the time of the Viking invaders from Scandinavia who shaped the landscape of the Cumbrian and Yorkshire moorland 'fells' in northern England. The practice may have become more widely prevalent in England after the Black Death in the 14th century, when the severe population decline meant that there were acute labour shortages: the number of sheep (breeding ewes) that may be grazed is still adjusted according to medieval 'manorial' law on some commons.


Grazing rights on commonland are purchased with the farm, as is the hefted flock of sheep. Because the sheep range over an area with a notional boundary, their 'heaf' or 'walk', the farmer knows where they can be found and can call in or round up his flock for shearing, de-worming, tupping or for their own safety. A more recent example of hefting is the Ministry of Defense-owned 8,500-hectare 'battle area' in the Breckland of Norfolk. Here the 5,000 sheep are hefted to 42 specific areas. When the army holds battle exercises, firing live rounds, the sheep are rounded up and enclosed. When the exercise is over, they are released and each hefted flock returns to its own area.


Each family of sheep, a ewe and her daughters over several generations, stay together as a small group within the flock and the whole flock grazes one area so that the entire common or moor is a mosaic of different hefted flocks. Genetic material is introduced by selecting rams but the matriarchal lineage is not interrupted.


A hefted ewe possesses knowledge that she teaches to her lambs. A hefted sheep needs to know where to go to graze and find nutritional benefits, such as the protein-rich new shoots of cotton grass, where streams or bogs may be safely crossed, where to go in different weather and at times of day or night to find shelter, shade or safety.


The environment is usually bleak, cold, wet and nutritionally poor. Lowland animals could not thrive on it. The land is too high or too wet and the soil too poor or rocky to plough and cultivate. The hefted sheep are adapted locally to their environment. As well as being thrifty, they must cope with mineral or micronutrient imbalance and prevalent environmental organisms, such as clostridial species of bacteria, and parasites such as the liver fluke. Hill sheep from one area may not thrive in another. Hill sheep from the dry cold moors of East Yorkshire will not thrive in Cumbria with its higher altitude, wetter climate, different soils and different plants. This is why such a variety of hill sheep breeds have developed over the years, centuries or even millennia, adapted to certain localities to which they are confined.


As the result of the foot and mouth epidemic and the culling policies that accompanied it, whole commons and mountains have been completely cleared of sheep or have few hefted sheep left. Of those killed some were from infected farms and proved to be so on diagnosis, some were culled as suspected cases but later after testing proved negative, some were contiguous or 3-km culls and some were culled for welfare reasons (food ran out and movement restrictions meant that they could not be moved to better pasture or for lambing). In many cases, the only females remaining from the hefted flock are the older ewes left out on the hill during the winter, all the young ewes having been culled on lowland farms whilst being over-wintered there. (Over-wintering young and breeding stock on the more fertile lowland farms is a common practice, enabling them to build up their strength for the breeding season. Unfortunately, many of these lowland farms were culled out in addition to other cases in the uplands.)


Though overgrazing has occurred recently and impoverished some highland habitat, under-grazing because there are no sheep left - or very few - can be at least as damaging environmentally and much harder to correct. A population of sheep can be reduced but it is very much more difficult to replace a population once it has been killed out or reduced to unsustainable numbers. Without any grazing at all, large areas may return to impenetrable scrub. This will mean that the existing biodiversity and the balance of wildlife will be affected adversely. Hefted sheep are integral to maintaining the unique and 'wild' or semi-natural environment of which they form part. The recreational and tourist value of the areas grazed by sheep is very great. Re-hefting sheep is a difficult, expensive and time-consuming process, even supposing suitable breeds are available.


Herdwick, Rough Fell, Dalesbred, Swaledale, North Country Black face and Hill Cheviot, Lonk, White Faced Woodland, White Faced Dartmoor and Hill Radnor are examples of some of the native breeds affected by the large numbers of sheep culled in 2001 because of FMD infection in the area to which they are special. 30 to 60% of the breeding population of ewes has been lost which will have a significant effect on the gene pool, since none of these breeds are strong numerically. In the case of Herdwicks, they are the only breed adapted to the harsh conditions of the high tops of the Lakeland hills in northern England and have been described as a 'cultural icon of the Lake District and its landscape'. The breed has lost 30,000 females out of a pre-FMD total of 75,000. Moreover, most of the Herdwicks available for restocking have come from one large flock so the genetic pool is not only impoverished but skewed. The Rough Fells, which graze the Howgill fells in northern England, have lost over 8,000 ewes from a pre-FMD total of 18,000. A lowland breed such as the Wensleydale, widely distributed in Britain, has been reduced by only 7%.


Re-hefting sheep is expensive and time-consuming. Extra shepherding is needed for at least five years. Initially the shepherd may have to live with the sheep and then visit daily to turn sheep back into their heaf. Where the whole mosaic of hefted flocks has been disrupted or vanished, electric fencing is being tried. Very large areas of moorland and mountain will present special difficulty, supposing they can be re-hefted at all. The process is not complete for ten to fifteen years. Territories need to become established, as does selection of families, the survival of the fittest and those best adapted to the environment takes place  and there is a high rate of die-off and those ewes which fail to thrive are weeded out by the shepherd. English Nature, the government-funded body which promotes the conservation of England's wildlife and natural features, the National Trust and other environmental organisations are all concerned about the environmental implications of the loss of hefted sheep. They are all endeavouring, with difficulty, to work out ways of repopulating the livestock-denuded areas with hefted flocks at an environmentally and economically sustainable level.





Hefted sheep are a valuable agricultural, genetic, environmental, biodiversity and, ultimately, social resource. Their numbers have been severely reduced by the 2001 FMD epidemic and the culling policies that accompanied it. The hefted hill sheep of Britain would probably not survive another FMD epidemic with the 'slaughter only' policy including the culling of such a large number of uninfected flocks (75% or more of all farms culled out were not infected. Such data as there is is not openly available and the majority of premises culled were never tested for infection. Infection of contiguous premises, the pre-clinical phase so that animals were apparently well, is likely to have been greatest in areas of the most intense infection such as Cumbria) The socio-cultural structure of many rural communities dependent on agriculture and tourism has been very hard hit. Family farms and environmentally friendly farming have suffered most severely. Recovery will take years. The management of the 2001 epidemic has been a financial disaster. Morally, the policies pursued have been abhorrent. They have also been unnecessarily severe and have compromised an ancient, important system of extensive livestock management unique to the United Kingdom.


The EU should recognise the unique importance of the hefted flock in the UK when drawing up policies for future outbreaks of FMD.


The EU should facilitate re-hefting areas that have lost their flocks by


(a) allowing the UK to make use of Commission Regulation (EC) 1750/1999 Section 6, Article 13 (which is incorporated into the England Rural Development Programme), by which Member States can make payments for maintaining local breeds of livestock 'in danger of extinction'.


(b) re-examining the State Aid Rules in relation to post-FMD assistance to hefted flocks, allowing the UK government to 'disapply certain restrictions' in order to re-establish the hefted flocks.




My thanks to many persons for introducing me to the ways of hefted sheep:

Richard Mawdesley farmer near Kendal in Cumbria

Geoff Brown secretary of the Herdwick Society

Geoffrey Sedgewick farmer near Sedburgh Cumbria

Julia Horner farmer's wife Warfdale Yorkshire

Suzanne Greenhill linked to Cockermouth market Cumbria

Andrew Foreman shepherd to Breckland army battle area in Norfolk

Colonel Pedley secretary of the Wensleydale Society

Eifion Jones farmer at Gwynfe Brecon Beacons National Park Wales

Richard Wright of English nature

Rob Macklin of the National Trust

Leslie Stebbings, sheep consultant



My own hefted flock of White Faced Welsh Mountain flock was not put on the Black Mountain in 2001.

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On vaccination


q       There were 5 million doses of the O Manisa vaccine in the EU vaccine bank (Veterinary Record of 24th march 2001). Why was no vaccination programme in place (thoroughly planned, resourced, publicly consulted with farmers and unions and rehearsed, prior to the outbreak) as part of the control strategy for an epidemic of FMD?


q       Why was the only vaccination programme applied to the EU by the UK for permission to vaccinate at the end of March and not at the beginning?


q       Why was only one vaccination strategy applied for by the UK, namely the protective vaccination of dairy cattle with the slaughter of all other receptive animals in the vaccination zone?


q       The inactivated oil-based FMD vaccine works well in sheep. Why was this never considered?

q       Why was the vaccination of hefted sheep flocks that could be kept under bio-secure conditions such as on moorland e.g. the Brecon Beacons National Park, never made part of a vaccination programme?


q       Why was vaccination of other flocks and herds, rare breeds, zoo animals, sanctuaries and other irreplaceable animals such as long pedigrees, never considered (bio-security would have precluded mixing of vaccinated animals with unvaccinated animals) and not included in a vaccination programme?


q       Why were individual requests to vaccinate entire flocks or herds to save breeding stock refused outright?


q       If vaccination was only to be used to control and eliminate the virus from a vaccination zone why was it then never used at all in Britain?


q       Why could we not restock previously infected premises with vaccinated animals?


q       Without a vaccination programme we are susceptible to bioterrorism- introducing FMD O Pan Asia from one of the many areas where it is current in the world could easily be accomplished and probably be impossible to detect.

Why has bioterrorism using FMD not been seriously considered?


q       Why is there so little published data on vaccination against the most prevalent strain of FMD in the world, O Pan Asia?


q       There should be no time penalty for vaccination as compared with slaughter. Modern virology can detect herds or flocks with potential carrier animals so that natural disappearance of vaccine antibodies should no longer be considered a limiting factor to prove a flock or herd is uninfected. The role of the vaccinated carrier animal has been exaggerated whilst the role of the unvaccinated carrier has been overlooked.

Why does the EU allow the OIE to retain out of date rules regarding the resumption of FMD-free status after an epidemic has been controlled?


q       Rules based on regaining FMD-free status for trading purposes skew the policy for controlling an epidemic. Why does the EU not propose rules that would allow an epidemic to be controlled in the most efficient way- the quickest time to elimination of the virus?

q       Why does the EU not set out guidelines for both the use of vaccination at the onset of an epidemic and proof of elimination of virus after an epidemic?


q       Why are virologists with practical expertise in control of FMD including vaccination so poorly represented on Britain's Science Committee and on the EU Standing Veterinary Committee?

Diagnosis of infection with FMD


Most of the farms culled out and cleansed in Britain were never infected with FMD. The method of extensive culling was experimental and never properly reviewed as it was adopted intra-epidemic.


The work at Pirbright showed this strain of O Pan Asia rarely if at all in 2001 gave rise to uncontrolled spread by virus plumes carried on the prevailing wind.


Apart from antigen detection the methods used in Britain had been used 34 years ago in the 1967  1968 epidemic.


The activity and priorities of diagnosis are different from and may conflict with those of research.


Consumption of vaccinated products


The EU recommends hanging and deboning lamb and pasteurising milk from a vaccination zone. Many cheeses cannot then be made, nor is it possible to debone lamb economically and the hanging conditions for lamb unlike beef are not established. The Food Standards Agency in the UK and Consumers Association have both agreed that vaccinated products (milk and meat) are safe to eat.


Economic environmental and social effects


X      Why does commonsense not prevail in the EU rules?

-Rules that are not justified on safety nor on reasonable grounds of the virology of an infectious agent should be weeded out of the EU if their remaining on the statute book gives rise to mismanagement of a virus infection for economic reasons.

-Farmer's acceptance of vaccination was prevented by the lack of compensation for produce such as vaccinated meat or milk that could not be sold.


X      Epidemic control should be at the least economic cost whilst most acceptable and humane. Why was tax-payers money wantonly wasted in slaughtering and incinerating so many healthy uninfected stock?


X      Why are some costs externalised from consideration of policy?

As socio-economic circumstances change it is imperative that the prevailing economic reality is fully taken account of in costs when forming policy and keeping it up to date.

-Huge financial damage to another industry, tourism, was never taken into account in policy making. People were not allowed to use footpaths during a time prolonged by failure to use vaccination e.g. on hill flocks (footpaths can be safely used after vaccination is completed).



I wish to thank Michael Sayer and Caroline Cranbrook of the CLA for their help in preparing this document and Dr Keith Sumption of the Royal Edinborough Veterinary School for his advice.

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