The sell-off of a pocket of land in the Lake District has provoked a national outcry, with the descendants of Beatrix Potter’s flock of Herdwicks at the centre of the storm. Maureen Hodges reports

The Herdwick sheep found on a stretch of green and pleasant land at idyllic Thorneythwaite Farm aren’t just any old flock. Experts say their bloodline can be traced back 4,500 years to when this unique breed of sheep were brought to the Lake District.

And one of their ancestral owners was renowned to say the least: author and fell farmer, Beatrix Potter. It’s those historic links – and maintaining the mission of the writer and others to protect the countryside and a very special breed of animal – that has triggered the controversy surrounding the sale of this land.

The National Trust paid £950,000 for the 303 acres in the Borrowdale Valley, nearly £200,000 over the guide price, dashing any hopes of Thorneythwaite Farm going to young local fell farmers.

Rather than the deal being hailed as a coup in the interests of the nation, it’s instead provoked a national outcry.

Cumbria native Lord Melvyn Bragg has condemned the trust’s acquisition of the land, but not its farmhouse as a “nasty piece of work”, while Cumbria’s most famous modern-day fell farmer, Herdy Shepherd James Rebanks, says the trust has sadly lost its way in protecting a living cultural landscape.

“They seem genuinely to not understand that in bidding like they did they killed stone dead more reasonable potential bids for the whole farm. The trust would rather own half a traditional farm than let a fell farmer buy it as a whole,” says Mr Rebanks, who cares for a flock of Herdwick sheep on his Matterdale farmstead.

Amanda Carson is secretary of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association, of which Beatrix Potter became the first female president in 1943 shortly before her death. She shares their concerns, putting forward a powerful argument about the impact of the sale on Cumbria.

She says: “The very fabric of the Lake District is being eroded. Is it the trust’s agenda to evict all of the tenant farmers and turn the farmsteads into commercial enterprises? It is just a money-making exercise for them.”

She added the breaking up of the farm had created a void in the farming community. “There are a couple of local farmers who were hoping to bid for the farm so they could provide for the next generation of farmers. People at the sale were terribly upset at what happened.”

The National Farmers Union believes the decision by the trust to buy the land has undermined their long-standing relationships with the tenants in the surrounding area.

“Farmers feel they have been rode roughshod over, and are rightly disappointed that a strategic purchase as huge as this has been taken in isolation and without the knowledge or consultation of the local community,” said NFU north west regional director David Hall.

He added that the decision flies in the face of the Lake District’s World Heritage bid which uses a Herdwick sheep as its logo.

The trust itself is keeping what it intends to do with the land very close to its chest. They say they wanted the land for its value to wildlife. A statement on their website said: “We believe we can look after this land in a way that benefits nature, visitors and the local community.”

But Ms Carson said: “The trust say they will employ land keepers as an alternative to farmers. These people will not necessarily have the skills to manage this environment in the way that our farmers have done. What will we be left with, nothing but a lot of bracken and bricks.”

The trust cannot yet confirm what will happen to the 413 Herdwick sheep, which fall into its ownership. It is talking to other shepherd tenants from Borrowdale about helping to manage them.

The sheep are hefted, which means they know what land they can graze on and are not fenced in.

Beatrix Potter

“The trust have sent a letter to farmers in Borrowdale asking for expressions of interest to manage the flock for 12 months. But it is not a question of just going up to the hills and checking they are okay. There is the feeding, the caring for them. There are no buildings to gather them in for clipping and lambing. These sheep are hefted to that fell, they cannot be moved elsewhere. What will happen to them after the 12 months is up?,” said Ms Carson.

“What concerns me is the shepherds may take the high ground and say they are not supporting the trust. But they are shepherds and will not abandon these sheep,” she added.

The incredible piece of land had gone on the market for the first time in almost 100 years, for £1.55 million. It is believed Lake District landowner, Miles Walker, put the property on the market after the tenant moved onto a smallholding nearby. The farm’s buildings were up for auction in a separate lot to the land. There was also another option, to purchase the farm buildings and land together if they reached a greater price than being sold separately.

Local farmers had hoped to buy the house and the land for about £1.4 million so that they could continue running it as a traditional sheep farm. When the buildings were initially sold to a couple from outside Cumbria for £850,000 — £50,000 above the guide price — they waited, hoping that no bids would be put in for the land and they could buy it all in the final sale.

Soon after the auctioneer announced that the land was up for sale, a buyer for the trust bid for £950,000.

It was the first and last bid, considerably more than the £500,000 to £600,000 locals suspect the land is worth.

The trust said in its statement that the bid they made was a calculation based on how they would need to offer to secure the land and minimise the risk of losing out if the two lots were sold together.

“We did not have the funds to buy both the farm and the land,” they said.

When the total plot was offered at a combined price of £1.8m, none of the farmers could afford it, ensuring the buildings would belong to a private family, and land to the trust.

Beatrix Potter was a key figure in saving the traditional Herdwick sheep from extinction by buying up hill farms in the Lake District, 15 of which she left to the National Trust after her death in 1943.

She stipulated that her fell farms should have fell-going flocks of the ‘pure Herdwick breed’.

“We believe in the upholding of the cultural legacy of the pastoral landscape and share Beatrix Potter’s love and passion for the Lake District. However, we also recognise that the world has changed, and will keep on changing.

“The way we maintain those traditions must therefore also change and adapt with it,” said the trust in its closing words on its statement.

James Rebanks But Mr Rebanks posted to his followers on Twitter: “And citing Beatrix Potter adds insult to injury... She would have been furious at this twisted corporate logic.”

Lord Bragg said he believes that Dame Helen Ghosh, director-general of the trust, must put the situation right. He says in his letter: “Had a billionaire bullied his way into this disgraceful purchase there would have been a deserved outcry. The National Trust considers itself beyond criticism and has behaved very badly.”

He added that the trust’s behaviour at the auction, in which it made an opening bid £200,000 above the £750,000 guide price to deter other bidders, was “straight out of the mafia”.