A LANDOWNER has defended its decision to reduce one of the biggest and most important hefted Herdwick flocks in the Lake District.

United Utilities, owners of West Head Farm at Thirlmere, said that when the current tenant announced he wished to end the tenancy early and move on they saw an opportunity to re-evaluate how the grazing regime in the future could help them better manage water on the land.

But their decision to replace the farm’s tenants, the Bland family, with a hired contract shepherd has led to concerns being voiced that landowners are seeking to drive family-run farms from the uplands.

The medieval system of small upland farms practising communal grazing with Herdwick sheep was recognised as the “most defining feature” of the Lake District when it was awarded World Heritage Site Status in 2017 by the United Nations.

Viv Lewis of the Federation of Cumbria Commoners described the move as a “slippery slope”. “This farm housed one of the Herdwick nuclear flocks. We have lost one of the best flocks in the area. It is a decimation of hefting systems by large landowners.”

UU said a contract shepherd would be expected to start on November 1 to maintain a hefted Herdwick flocks which includes 350 breeding ewes, 100 shearlings, 100 hoggs and nine tups which will be maintained at that level for the next four years.”

Fellow Lake District farmer James Rebanks, of Matterdale, said on social media there was a growing feeling of despair that “large organisations with power over this landscape cannot be bothered with its traditional farms”.

He tweeted: “Gutted that @unitedutilities have chosen to not have another farm tenant at West Head in Thirlmere. A hired shepherd isn’t remotely the same thing.”

Armathwaite farmer Julia Aglionby, executive director of the Foundation for Common Land, said UU should instead be setting a new model, enabling the continuation of an authentic and evolving pastoral management system.

She said it was disappointing to see the company, which supported the application for the Lake District’s World Heritage Site designation, was no longer letting West Head as a farm despite such flocks “lying at the heart [of it]”.

Jeremy Barlow, the National Trust’s head of operations for Cumbria and North Lancashire, said: “We are committed to sustainable land management and supporting the critical role that farming and the Herdwick breed play in the Lake District, while meeting the future needs of us all – farmers, local communities, visitors and society.

“We are investing millions in our Lakes Future Farming Programme to secure a sustainable future for our farms, at a time of unprecedented change, and working with industry experts, partners and the farming community.”

In a statement, UU said it was not the end for Herdwick sheep at West Head Farm, but in the immediate term they had to make sure the sheep were looked after when the tenant left at the end of October. “We are also responsible for delivering the remaining four years of the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme which we will be inheriting from the tenant, with all its associated funding being reinvested into the farm. That is why we are looking to attract a good shepherd to live at Westhead who will work closely with us and other farming sector experts to help develop the open fell part of the Thirlmere resilience plan.

“The success of this approach will help us determine the next steps when the HLS comes to an end. Our plans are long term and still developing, but we are clearly committed to the World Heritage status of the farm and therefore retaining a flock of Herdwick, albeit in smaller numbers. This will work as part of a wider model including more forestry, restoring natural landscape and improving biodiversity.”