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Thousands of sheep feared dead on Cumbrian fells

A major search and rescue operation is continuing to try to save potentially thousands of sheep buried by blizzards.

Sheep photo
A sheep is dug out of the snow in Cumbria

It is now a week since severe snowstorms wreaked havoc across Cumbria, cutting off homes and leaving people trapped behind huge drifts.

As the thaw continues, farmers are discovering heartbreaking numbers of animals which have succumbed to the nightmare conditions on the fells.

Losses are such that for some of the county’s rare sheep breeds, the battle for survival is likely to be as great as it was in the aftermath of the 2001 foot and mouth crisis.

Copeland’s MP has called for emergency support for farmers hit by the big freeze.

Jamie Reed has written to secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Owen Paterson, seeking emergency assistance for local farmers hit by the recent winter storms.

He said: “Farmers in South Copeland and across our area more widely, have been hammered by the recent snow falls. For sheep farmers, lambing is the culmination of a full year’s work, not just a seasonal activity, and the toll taken by the weather on local flocks is massive.”

The Borrowdale Valley, near Keswick, is another of the areas where farmers are facing massive losses.

The race against time to save unique breeds like the Herdwick and Swaledale has seen groups of farmers, union bosses and RSPCA officials working round the clock on the snow-covered fells of west Cumbria.

“It is just a humanitarian effort now,” said NFU secretary based in Broughton, Esther Pritt.

“Amazingly we just pulled one sheep out alive. But most are dead,” she said.

“As if this is not bad enough, those sheep that were inside have started to lamb and some are succumbing to lamb disease, because they are so out of condition because of last year’s wet weather,” she added. She says farmers in the Lake District fells feel despair, shock, and vulnerable.
“It is a pretty close-knit community, but many farmers feel they have been forgotten. They just don’t know what to do. Most of them are in their 60s and trying to get to their sheep is proving too much,” said Ms Pritt.

Search parties have been combing Corney Fell and nearby Eskdale and Wasdale in biting cold conditions for sheep still buried in drifting snow.
“It is dreadful work,” added Ms Pritt.

Heartbroken farmer Joseph Harrison says he can only sit and wait for the snow to melt before tallying his losses.

Hundreds of his Herdwicks, many in lamb, have been cut off by drifts of up to 20ft.

“I just feel so useless. We have pulled out single numbers, but I have about 900 out there in the snow,” said Mr Harrison, of Brotherilkeld Farm. He claimed one farmer in the Borrowdale Valley had 800 sheep on the high fells.

“He’s not expecting them to make it,” said Mr Harrison.

“What will happen to those sheep on the high fells that cannot be lifted. It will be heartbreaking for us and walkers,” he added.

Farmers across the county have been left counting the cost of the devastating blizzards, adding to difficult conditions caused by a washout summer.

Will Cockbain, who farms at Rakefoot, Keswick, said the clean-up operation could run into thousands.

“Farmers will have to pay for dead stock to be taken away. Then there’s those who have sheep and lambs inside.

“There’s the extra cost of feed and bedding. There’s no grass,” said Mr Cockbain.


Have your say

Has Roy ever tried gathering sheep from the fells in the Lake District? It is usually a combined job with other farmers who have sheep in the same area, and takes time to organise as well as needing numbers of people and dogs.In this case it may not have benefitted the sheep much as I believe the valleys were also snow bound.

Posted by animal lover on 8 April 2013 at 11:50

Could Roy please explain how they were supposed to cope with this extreme weather i'm a sheep farmer and have been lucky not to have lost too many, only because we had only just started lambing.Had the storm come a week later it would be a different story.We all try our best for our animals and ar at the mercy of the weather every day and it can make or break us.

Posted by Ian on 7 April 2013 at 20:58

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