Have you ever wondered how the sheep and cows you see on the moors know to stay there without fences?
It’s because those animals were hefted to that area.
Hefting is a practice that goes back centuries, a tie to the past that will hopefully carry through for many more centuries to come.
A lot of the hefted flocks of sheep on the hills of the Lake District, North Yorkshire Moors and the other hills, moors and mountains across Britain have been established for centuries too. With the flocks staying with the farms and being passed on to each new owner or tenant, so they never lose that hefting instinct.
Cattle and ponies can also be hefted to a place, but it’s most commonly seen with sheep.
Initially establishing a heft takes a lot of time and effort, the animals have to be kept in place by constant shepherding, as there are no physical boundaries so technically, they could roam anywhere. The animals gradually learn their heft and no longer need shepherding to stay there. Then, as each generation is born, they also know to stay there through the inherited knowledge and instinct from their mothers.
The animals learn where to go for shelter, where to graze at different points of the year and where their invisible boundary is.
The herds and flocks of hardy hill breeds, hefted to the moors and mountains, put us to shame a bit, seeing as our cattle struggle to stay behind a barbed wire fence 100% of the time, and the sheep we used to keep were regular visitors to villagers’ gardens!
Sometimes, hefted sheep do stray to other flock’s areas, but when all the sheep are gathered off the hills at certain points of the year, like for lambing or shearing, the farmers return any strays to one another. They know who to return them to because each flock have a unique way of being identified, but we’ll cover all the types of identification tomorrow.