Relieve stress with some sheep hugging at this Lake District farm
- Credit: The Herdwick Experience
Don’t be sheepish, relieve stress and get close to one of the region’s most iconic creatures at an historic farm near Coniston
Yew Tree Farm has had many claims to fame over the years. For centuries it was a favourite stopping off point for a pint on the horse and cart road from Ambleside to Coniston. Its Penny House, named after the price of the ale, is still visible behind the 1690-built farmhouse.
Then in the 1930s when vast stretches of the Lake District were being devoted to fast-growing trees for the timber trade, it was acquired for the National Trust by children’s author, illustrator and Herdwick sheep champion, Beatrix Potter. The farmhouse even doubled for her home at Hilltop in the film Miss Potter, starring Renee Zellweger.
But now the 800-acre farm, which includes popular tourist spot Tarn Hows, is gaining a new world-wide reputation, as a place to hug a Herdy.
Visitors from as far afield as America and Japan are keen to book The Herdwick Experience, the latest in a growing list of diversification businesses to help maintain this archetypal traditional Lakeland farm.
‘The idea grew organically from my own experience with the Herdwicks,’ says artist Jo McGrath, who is married to the tenant farmer Jon Watson.
Together they keep around 1,000 sheep and 50 belted Galloways in the environmentally friendly farm business, along with assorted chickens, dogs and cats.
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‘I had a couple of unusually friendly Herdwick sheep and spent time with them in the beautiful surroundings,’ says Jo. ‘I invited a few friends round to share the experience and they invited their friends. It started eating up too much of my time and so people started offering to pay.
‘The idea spread by word of mouth. We had to stop during lockdowns, but when that was lifted, we had a lot of NHS staff who came for the therapy. Help for Heroes for soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder got to hear about it and others came from the cities to a very different environment.
‘I have had people burst into tears and even people who end up talking about suicide attempts. People who don’t know me and haven’t been able to talk about their stresses before, seem able to unload their emotions while the sheep nuzzle up to them.
‘It is nice to help people in this way and they seem to find the animals very therapeutic, as they are so receptive to people,’ says Jo.
Not that the Herdwicks take to everyone.
‘If they sense people are in a hurry and just want a quick selfie, they don’t hang around. But if you are willing to take the time to relax with them, they will interact with you,’ she adds.
The experience, which takes about three hours in total, costs £45 per person in groups up to eight. If you want a private session, it costs £270.
The attraction starts with an hour-long talk by Jo in the Herdwick Experience room, which is in a barn decorated with artefacts and posters which tell the whole story of Herdwick sheep as a breed, how the farm runs in a way which benefits wildlife as well as the livestock and the links with Beatrix Potter.
This talk is interactive so Jo can focus on areas of particular interest to those attending. The subjects she covers are vast.
‘If it hadn’t been for the intervention of Beatrix Potter, who bought 15 farms for the National Trust, Herdwicks and these traditional farms wouldn’t exist now,’ she says.
Miss Potter, or Mrs Heelis as she was by then, stipulated that the contract for tenant farmers insisted they keep Herdwicks.
In her talks, Jo explains the history of the Herdwick whose heritage goes back thousands of years to before the North Sea made Britain an island, and they migrated across Dogger bank from the far north of mainland Europe.
After the talk, the real treat is the hour-and-a-half walk up to the Herdwicks in their own field. The rewards can be staggering. As well as the calming of stress, there are views of Holme Fell and across to the Coniston fells, and there is an abundance of wildlife, another benefit of traditional upland farming.
There is a price to pay for being so ecologically aware. The farm could not make a profit without all the add-on activities.
Jon Watson has pioneered the selling of heritage meats from the Herdwick and the Galloway to the likes of Masterchef and the Old Stamp House in Ambleside which used Yew Tree Farm hogget to gain its Michelin star.
Anyone can buy meats from the farm or at the Herdwick Café, a joint venture with Gemma Metcalfe at Coniston. Jo still earns a separate living from her painting, mainly of pets and farm animals. But at the core of the business are the Herdwicks. If you want to know what they think, just ask if you are ever lucky enough to be nuzzled by one.
Jo is now seeking sponsors to enable her to offer the experience to people with special needs. To find out more, go to yewtree-farm.com.