A COMBINED love of sheep and the Lake District’s landscape and communities has driven flock keeper and author Andrea Meanwell to considerable efforts to spread a positive message about upland farming to the wider public.

The Meanwells’ flock at Low Borrowbridge, near Tebay, is made up of 150 Rough Fell and 150 Welsh Hill Speckled Face ewes (WHSF), as well as several dozen Ouessant females. Lambing takes place outdoors in early April and there is also a small herd of Aberdeen Angus suckler cows.

“We used to sell stores, but returns were so poor in 2016 that we now finish anything that is not required as a replacement,” said Mrs Meanwell.

“I worked out that it was costing £26 per store lamb to reach the point of sale, including the expense of keeping the ewe over the winter. This figure was actually the top price that I was paid for a store hill lamb that year.

“The Rough Fell is a local breed, but the WHSF came about by accident. I had helped with the Rough Fell breed website and then had an inquiry asking me to create a site for the WHSF society.

“I jokingly asked for payment in the form of a couple of ewes and was surprised when a delivery arrived. The breed has turned out to be ideally suited to the climate and the location; our land rises to 600 feet above sea level. The WHSF has performed well and the flock has gradually been expanded.”

The Ouessant, she added, is probably the most profitable breed on the farm.

“Ouessants are very small, as well as being attractive in appearance. They are popular with hobby keepers and owners of farm parks and stately homes, as they are also easy to manage and good at keeping down the grass.

“We can sell the wethers as pets, because many of our buyers are not interested in breeding sheep. They attract a premium price and have been sent all over the country.”

Mrs Meanwell works full-time as a farming officer for the Lake District National Park authority, while husband Anthony works off-farm.

This leaves their son Hector to manage the day-to-day running of the holding, which lies on the border between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales National Parks.

Like many new livestock keepers, the Meanwells started off on a smallholding, gradually adding to the acreage by acquiring rented land.

They moved to Low Borrowbridge in the spring of 2018 and the farm is a currently mixture of owned and rented land totalling almost 300 acres.

It was her passion for sheep and her love of the landscape and communities surrounding her farm that first encouraged Mrs Meanwell to connect with the public. It followed a newspaper comment by environmental and political activist George Monbiot.

“He had described the Lake District as ‘sheep-wrecked’,” she said. “I telephoned The Guardian and the editor agreed to publish my response to this remark.

“The statement was simply not true. At one point, it was argued that there were too many sheep on the hills, but this was acknowledged and numbers have been greatly reduced.

“The uplands are no longer over-grazed and the previous situation was due to the governmental policies at the time.

“It seems that some members of our society would like our landscape to revert to scrub, but I do not believe that these people represent the majority, although the public has lost touch with food production and the countryside.

“The national park representatives themselves acknowledge the wider value that farming brings and consider that among its most important assets are the cultural heritage and the community that it supports.

“They are keen to ensure that traditional events like agricultural shows, for example, will continue, and have been working with organisations like the RSPB and the National Trust to find further solutions to preserve agriculture.”

To date, Mrs Meanwell has written four books about life on the farm and also runs a Twitter account with more than 10,000 followers under the name of WestmorlandShepherdess.

Her previous career as a primary school teacher did not prepare her for the changes that would take place in her life, but farming is in her blood.

“My uncle, Alan Birbeck, is a noted Swaledale breeder and also one of the founders of the North of England Mule Association,” she said.

“As a child, I spent a lot of time on his farm at Kirkby Stephen, although most of my knowledge was acquired when I started working part-time on a sheep farm when we lived on the smallholding. At age 40, I must have been one of the oldest apprentices in Cumbria.”

Keen to protect her livelihood following the proposed reduction in farm-support payments, Mrs Meanwell and her family have plans to diversify. They already sell boxes of home-produced lamb, on occasion.

“We are hoping to install two shepherd’s huts on the farm to supplement our income,” she said. “That will mean our time being stretched even further, but I will continue to reach as many people as possible, to try and achieve a greater understanding about farming and its benefits.”