The Lonk, Lancashire's historic sheep breed
Whitewell photographer John Eveson heads for the high ground to record one of Lancashire's native breeds. Roger Borrell reports
Like all Lancastrians, it’s good looking, agile, healthy, dependable, lean and very good at surviving the rigours of an unforgiving climate. Unlike most Lancastrians, it also goes very nicely with mint sauce.
The mysteriously-named Lonk sheep have been on our uplands since ancient times and we should cherish them as a symbol of the red rose county. Sadly, they are little known even in their own back yard.
The monks at Whalley and Sawley are thought to have farmed them and they are native to Lancashire, although a few strayed into the Peak District and a smattering took a wrong turn and ended up in Yorkshire.
They live in Lancashire’s high places with a minimum of fuss, grazing in the sort of spots where most other breeds wouldn’t be seen dead. If you think Herdwicks are hard, then you haven’t met a Lonk.
Last year, they fleetingly came to the nation’s attention when Michelin-starred Ribble Valley chef Nigel Haworth used Lonk to cook a stunning hotpot which saw him win the main prize on BBC2’s The Great British Menu.
He has championed the breed for many years and makes a point of serving Lonk sourced from a farm at Whitewell. When the Northcote Manor chef sung its praises some housewives started to ask their butchers for it. Most got blank looks.
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That’s something that should change - not through some romantic attachment but because they are on our doorstep so the carbon footprint is small. More importantly, they are delicious to eat.
John Pickard and his daughter Tracy are experienced farmers of the breed. They look after a flock of over 1,000 on 750 acres at Bradley Hall Farm near Great Harwood. There was a farm on this site in 1776 but its has been run by the Pickards since 1925. John’s father started farming Lonks in the 40s and they’ve kept faith with the breed.
‘They are one of the biggest of the hill breeds,’ says John, chairman of the Lonk breeders’ association. ‘They are very hardy, well able to live on a harsh terrain.’
The Lonk is well established in Bowland and the hilly areas beyond Oldham and Rochdale. In recent years the numbers have grown but it wasn’t looking so rosy back in 2001 when � foot and mouth threatened them with extinction. Being Lonks, they toughed it out.
John, who has picked up dozens of awards over the years for the quality of his flock including the prestigious Royal Show at Stoneleigh, says: ‘Nigel Haworth did a lot to publicise the breed and people did start asking for it.’ Tracy adds: ‘But it’s not the sort of thing you’d find in a supermarket.’
‘A lot of people comment on the flavour,’ says John. ‘It’s lean but not dry. I particularly enjoy it roasted or in chops.’
A short history of the Lonk, obviously written a while back, conveys a considerable passion in its author. Of the ram, he notes: ‘He has an arrogant Roman-nosed face, cleanly coloured black and white with strong legs. His shoulders are broad with a hint of power.
‘For all his weight and size, the Lonk ram is neatly proportioned, compact and even. His carriage is gay and there is a suggestion of action in his general appearance. The ram is of aristocratic lineage…his bearing is alert and his manner is aloof. The ewe is equally attractive on a more feminine line, yet sturdy, well-boned and agile with a nice set of horns.’
The reason for the gaiety of the Lonk is not immediately obvious. They will normally live year-round on the moors, lashed by rainstorms and snowfall. When it’s not raining or snowing, they are often shrouded in cold damp fog. Fortunately, they have a remarkably dense, impervious coat which simply requires a shake to free it from water. Happily they are prodigious when it comes to reproduction and the ewes make good mothers.
The origin of the name is a puzzle. There is a theory that it derives from the word ‘lanky’, meaning long and thin, but no one knows for sure. It has been lost in the mists of time.
The history adds: ‘The Lonk, a good-looking animal for the man who has pride in his stock is a capable of turning the uplands of Britain - and the world - into a successful and economically-sound farming enterprise.’
Well, the Lonk hasn’t taken over the world just yet. But John and Tracy have recently been sending a few across the Irish Sea and a flock has now been established in County Antrim.
John has been to see them and declares them happy in their new home. You can’t help feeling they will miss the driving rain and relentless gales.