‘Hefting’ a sense of place – Part 1

Since the project team started the data-enhancement, I think we have all begun to think more deeply about ideas concerned with place. We have begun to ask ourselves what it means to feel rooted in, connected to, or familiar with particular locales. When Roy Brigden (the former Keeper of this Museum) retired in 2010 he referred in his farewell speech to the practice of ‘hefting’. Perhaps unfamiliar to many readers, this is the process of intensively herding flocks of upland sheep until they become accustomed to a particular grazing area. Once hefted in this way, such groups retain a kind of homing instinct that lasts across generations. Such livestock often has a greater financial value. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, it represents the durability of a hill farming practice that is centuries old.

A flock of Cheviot sheep

Gathering a hill flock at Lairg, Sutherland, in 1959

During the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 concern over the slaughter of hefted flocks was marked. In areas where the practice is most common (the north of England, the Scottish Borders, and parts of Wales) the impact of such decimation was seen in terms of not just the ruination of livelihoods but of unbroken traditions of herding being irreversibly interrupted, not to mention the difficulties associated with reinstating this system by training new flocks to recognise the old ground. As the son of a hill sheep farmer myself, I know a good deal about this practice and find it offers a useful way to begin conceptualising and characterising how I feel about the notion of ‘sense of place’ that gives name to this project.

6 thoughts on “‘Hefting’ a sense of place – Part 1

  1. I cannot think of more appropriate agricultural terminology for “a sense of place” than hefting, hefted, the heft…

    …I interviewed Cumbrian sheep farmers for a project I was involved in at the start of this year, and that is where I learnt about hefting. I was very struck by how all the farmers talked about the loss of hefting knowledge as a primary concern during foot & mouth times. I also was very impressed by how deeply Herdwick sheep (in particular) attach themselves to a particular place on the fells.

    • How do the farmers bring in new sheep and hefted them to their hills? How many weeks in one place does it take before new animals are hefted to that place?

      • Dear David,

        In a traditional hefted context the sheep were habituated by repeated herding over a long period of time. I’m not sure how long this would have taken but might be able to look that information out for you if you are keen to know. Some flocks were originally hefted hundreds of years ago, meaning the costs of labour were far lower and hill farms had much larger teams of shepherding staff, rather than the one or two in most contexts today.

        Following on from the original hefting process, any new ewes would then be lambs born of older generations and they would therefore learn the heft by following their mothers. This ensured they could remain hefted from generation to generation over very long periods of time.

        In some modern contexts the habituation of the heft can become broken. The most commonly cited context for this is in the context of the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, when many hefted flocks were slaughtered in their entirety in order to minimise the risk of spread to farms bordering on those where there had been confirmed cases. In these contexts different approaches were likely adopted. The costs of labour required to heft in the original way would be prohibitive in the modern context.

        Some hefts were fenced permanently, bringing an end to hefting in its true form. Others were temporarily fenced to bring about re-hefting in new flocks. This article suggests the expectation was for this to take 4 to 5 years: https://www.thewestmorlandgazette.co.uk/news/245690.fencing-to-help-hefted-sheep/

        I hope this information helps.

        Best wishes,
        Ollie Douglas (Curator of MERL Collections)

        • Talking yesterday with a hill farmer in Northumberland (I am a rural vicar) he suggested that his Swaledales are only recently properly hefted after the foot and mouth. He said he had not fenced them, which might be the difference with your example of 4-5 years, (and they are fattened elsewhere in summer, which might also have an effect I supposed.)

  2. Pingback: A Sense of Place · Rambling and museum collections

  3. Thanks Felicity. Your endorsement of this metaphor is heartening! Although slightly abstract and perhaps a little theoretcial for some, the work of anthropologist John Gray on hill farmers of the Scottish Borders offers some useful insight into ideas about place and community within hill farming areas. One such interesting reference follows:

    John Gray, ‘Open Spaces and Dwelling Places: Being at Home on Hill Farms in the Scottish Borders’, American Ethnologist, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May, 1999), pp. 440-460

    I’ve just blogged about your walking project.

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