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We all know and love Beatrix Potter’s charming animal characters: Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Henry Herdwick. Okay, I made the last one up. Although none of Beatrix Potter’s “Tale of” books feature a sheep main character, they really should have. For Beatrix Potter wasn’t only a brilliant author and artist; she was also responsible for saving an endangered breed of English sheep called the Herdwick.

Early Days

Two things about Potter’s childhood foreshadow her later days as a sheep farmer. One was her fascination with animals and the natural world. Born in London in 1866, Potter and her brother Bertram filled their nursery with pets, from the expected (rabbits and mice) to the unusual (bats). The Potter children studied their pets intently; Beatrix made sketches and detailed notes on their anatomy and behavior. 

The second key aspect of Potter’s childhood: her self-identification as a Northerner. The Potter family had deep roots in northern England. Potter’s great-grandfather owned a calico factory in Lancashire for many years and her parents were from Manchester. The Potters frequently went on holiday to the north country. Indeed, Beatrix did not care for London, once observing, “My brother & I were born in London because my father was a lawyer there. But our descent—our interests and our joy was in the north country.”

Battling Expectations

As you might expect, an intelligent and intellectually curious woman like Beatrix did not easily fit into the conventions of Victorian England. Her status as an unmarried woman gave her freedom to pursue her artistic and scientific interests, but it also made her financially dependent on her parents. Beatrix lived with her parents until she was forty-six, often acquiescing to their narrow notions of what was “proper.” Potter’s decision to begin selling her work, first as sketches for greeting cards and later as children’s books, was her first step toward some measure of autonomy.

While her success gave Beatrix some financial independence, her parents had other ideas. The Potters clearly expected their unmarried adult daughter to continue taking care of them for the rest of their lives. Beatrix threw a wrench into their plans when she developed a romantic relationship with Norman Warne, one of her editors at publisher Frederick Warne & Sons. She accepted Norman’s marriage proposal in 1905.

Alas, the marriage was not meant to be. Norman Warne died suddenly of leukemia just a month after he proposed to Beatrix. She was devastated. 

The Making of a Farmer

I like to imagine that Beatrix Potter, affected so deeply by her fiancé’s death, reached her own personal YOLO moment in 1905. She had long dreamed of owning a farm in northern England. Beatrix used her earnings plus a small inheritance to purchase Hill Top Farm, located in England’s beautiful Lake District. Biographer Linda Lear describes this purchase as “a courageous assertion of personal freedom and emotional independence.” It changed the entire trajectory of Potter’s life.

Hamstrung by the demands of her parents, Potter was not able live at Hill Top Farm full-time until her father died in 1914. In the meantime, she oversaw repairs to the property and bought additional acreage as it became available. Potter retained William Heelis, a local solicitor, to help with legal issues. Their relationship deepened, and in 1913, the couple wed. Their happy marriage lasted thirty years.

The Saving of a Breed

Once the couple settled in, Beatrix began focusing on farming in earnest. She was thrilled when a tenant farmer  brought home sixteen Herdwick ewes, hoping for lambs in the spring. Beatrix loved Herdwicks, a hardy breed indigenous to the Lake District. It wasn’t just their adorable faces; Herdwicks were bred to thrive in the unique environment of the north country, with nimble feet and rustic wool. Most importantly, Herdwicks were “hefted” to the land, able to graze on communal land then return to their home pastures without constant shepherding. Hefting is  an integral part of the local farming culture.

An influx of tourists and increasing commercial development began to threaten the Lake District. With the price of wool and meat fluctuating, Potter knew that farmers strapped for cash had two sources of quick income: cutting and selling the timber on their land and selling off their flocks. Both cash grabs damaged the integrity of the land. Trees took many years to regrow and replacing hefted flocks wasn’t as simple as purchasing more sheep. Because it takes years to connect a flock to land through hefting, losing flocks was uniquely disruptive to this part of the country.

In 1924, Beatrix Potter purchased a large sheep farm called Troutbeck Park Farm—nearly 2,000 acres of land plus a substantial flock of Herdwick sheep. Potter had found the perfect place to build a flock but this particular flock was a hot mess. Many were diseased or infested with parasites (liver fluke, anyone?). And to reach full breeding potential, Potter would have to fix a myriad of other problems: canine distemper among the herding dogs, a vicious rat infestation, polluted streams, bad drainage, and overly wet fields. The farmhouse and other buildings needed renovation and modernization. It must have seemed an overwhelming challenge.

Beatrix immediately found experienced shepherds who  understood the intricacies of sheep farming. Potter also benefitted from her interest in science, trying out novel cures like a veterinary injection that prevented ovine respiratory attacks. “Beatrix’s managers and shepherds always found her interest in science and animal husbandry and her willingness to experiment admirable,” notes biographer Lear. “It further distinguished her as a woman farmer and sheep breeder.”

Beatrix Potter with her prize-winning sheep, ca. 1937

Long-time residents were initially somewhat mystified by the newcomer with her wool suits (made from Herdwick wool, natch) and clogs. Although Potter was extremely knowledgeable about sheep and was a skilled judge of their quality, many local sheep farmers were dismissive. Beatrix loved to talk sheep with other breeders, though, saying she didn’t care “a two-penny bit” about their opinions of her.

Nothing convinces skeptics like success. Before long, Potter’s sheep began to win prizes—and they won big. She was even asked to preside at local shows, once recalling the day when an “old jolly farmer” likened Beatrix to the first-prize cow: “He said she was a lady-like animal; and one of us had neat legs, and walked well; but I think that was the cow not me, being slightly lame,” she wryly remarked.

For the remainder of her life, Potter continued to breed Herdwicks and Galloway cattle, expanded her landholdings, and worked closely with the UK National Trust to conserve her beloved Lake District. She continued to study the natural world, often writing scientific papers or sketching interesting features. In March 1943, Beatrix was elected president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeder’s Association—a rare honor. She was the first woman to hold the position, although she did not live long enough to serve her term. She died in December 1943 at her home in the village of Sawrey. At her request, her ashes were scattered over the land above Hill Top Farm by her devoted shepherd Tom Storey.


Lear, Linda. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (St. Martin’s 2017).

Minslow, Sarah. “Beatrix Potter World, Hill Top Farm, and a Legacy of Conservation,” from Storybook Worlds Made Real (2022).

Thomson, Keith Stewart. “Beatrix Potter, Conservationist,” American Scientist (2007).

Photo credits: Carol Sulcoski, Wikicommons, National Trust, Andrea Makewell for the National Trust,


  • Fascinating story – thank you.

    • That was wonderful! Another insight on-a brave and courageous woman Willing to swim upstream

  • This is wonderful! Apart from her books, I knew almost nothing about Beatrix Potter. Such a good story, and so well written – thanks so much for this. (And the pictures are great, too – love the more recent one of the house, so little changed.)

    • Love this.

    • I think you would like the biopic with Renee Zellweger.

      • how can I find that biopic?

        • The movie – released in 2006 – is titled, “Miss Potter” and stars Renee Zellweger [as Beatrix Potter] and Ewan McGregor (as the Love Interest)

        • The biopic is called Miss Potter and, though a few details have been changed for dramatic continuity, it does stay very close to Beatrix Potter’s actual life. And everything in it is gorgeous – the costumes, settings, illustrations, and acting. And they did use National Trust properties for the setting! So, very lovely and well worth watching.

        • Wonderful writing ! Such an interesting woman. Thank you! Made me want to know more

    • I learned so much for your article today thank you!

  • Great morning read!

    • So interesting and enjoyable to learn. I love her books and illustrations!:)

  • I’m always learning something new from MDK. Thanks!

    • Oh my!! Where to begin? This was a wonderful story. Thank you!! I didn’t know about her life as a sheep farmer. Now I must read more, of course. About Beatrix and about Herdwick sheep. You’ve sent me on a new reading quest. Yay!! I’m off to my favorite bookstore (online for today) to find some books to order. Thanks again for this insight into one of my favorite authors.

  • I visited the farm in the 1980s, saw the sheep, and purchased an SQ of Herdwick yarn. It is indeed rustic, and needs a long-sleeved t underneath, but is still going strong with no pilling.
    I had always been fascinated by Potter and her work, and was very glad to be able to visit the National Trust property; very grateful that she helped preserve the Lake District.
    Recommend visiting for anyone who can.

  • Oh I loved this! I’m so glad the world has had such a caring and accomplished shepherdess and that you highlighted her story. Thank you!

  • Thank you Carol Sulcoski for this wonderful review of the amazing shepherdess, Beatrix Potter, my first favorite author..

  • Lovely. Thank you for this.

  • Thank you for this. A wonderful start to my day.

    • I want to echo other readers: wonderful, delightful. It’s inspiring to read about a woman who achieved a happy life despite obstacles. A woman who overcame discouraging circumstances on the farm, in the rural hierarchy and personally. The sheep have such lovely faces!

  • Delightful story! I did not know this about her. Love being enlightened.

  • Thank you for reminding me of a wonderful visit to the Lake District. It was a magical time that I would recommend for any avid knitter/traveler!

  • Always something new to learn on MDK , bright spot in my day!

  • I’ve learned a lot about Beatrix Potter over the last couple of years and admire her many accomplishments. After a trip to the Lake District, I’ve been very interested in learning more about the sheep and shepherds there. There’s a very good British realty show called The Farming Life which gives an insight into today’s farmers in the north of England and in Scotland. You’ll have a greater appreciation of the farmer’s and those with herds if you watch it.

  • Thanks so much, Carol, for this wonderful glimpse of the rest of Beatrix Potter’s life. Such a farmer and naturalist and a very strong woman. Now, I must go there!

  • What a lovely post.

  • Wow! I had no idea. Thanks for starting my day with this story.

    • Thank you for a very interesting and well written story! I hope you will continue to contribute to MDK in the future.

  • Thank you for a wonderful article. It comes at a perfect time as I’m going on a one week walking tour of the Lake District in April which includes a visit to Beatriz Potter’s place and a chance to see her sheep. You have raised my excitement (which was already high) and given a great introduction to what we will see.

    • I think we will be there together—-Rowan Tree Travel Lakes District Tour! I’m reading the Lear book already. Looking forward to meeting you:-)

  • Reading this… brought me to the article about Mary Walker Phillips you published in 2020… must have been just before I joined your newsletter mailing list. I absolutely admire MWP, her creativity and love that book of hers… Thank you for both articles and for continued publishing of more historical and other info from “the fringes” (no pun intended) of the textile crafts…Namaste…!

  • What a fascinating story, thank you for bringing it to us! You’ve inspired me to read more about Potter.

  • Thank you for this WONDERFUL post!

  • Thank you! This was fascinating! I have always loved Beatrix Potter, and now I know why. You made my day!

  • Thank you for posting an excellent morning read! I learned from it and loved it! Thank you!

  • Adding my thanks for this post, so interesting!

  • Great story to start my morning!

  • What a life story! Thank you for bringing it to our attention!

  • My children grew up on her books and I never knew all this about her involvement with the sheep and preservation! Quite a woman ahead of her time! Lovely article, thank you!

    • I wish my dear maternal grandmother, Mary Hougham, could have read this. She adored Potter’s literary output and Potter’s life would have very much inspired Granny. Thank you for the interesting tribute to her.

  • Adding to the thanks! What a lovely read in bed on another snowy morning. And thanks for stories like this which are deeply appreciated.

  • She was a fascinating character. I believe she also made some sort of botanical discovery, and wrote papers on it when she was younger, but her research was rejected because she was a woman.

    • Sort of — the details are murky. She submitted a paper on mycology to the Linnean Society. At the time women were not allowed as members. According to the Linnean Society, the practice was to have another person present one’s paper, so it wasn’t unusual for an author to not be present at the reading. Some sources say she withdrew the paper before it could be published, while others say it was rejected due at least in part to sexism. In the 1990s, the Linnean Society acknowledged that she had been “treated scurvily.” A synopsis of her paper was presented to the Society in 2012 (by a female mycologist) and accepted.

  • Thank you for such a wonderful article on Beatrix Potter. I’ve always been a fan of hers.

  • I hadn’t heard of hefting before. What a valuable trait to have in a flock!

  • Thank you thank you! I just watched the last segment of Britains Hidden Villages on Roku which covered Beatrix Potter and her sheep. I’m smitten! On my list of places I hope to visit sometime.

  • If you enjoyed reading this lovely post, you might like to follow James &/or Helen Rebanks on Instagram (& maybe Twitter?). They live & raise a large flock of Herdwick sheep, along with 4 children, sheep dogs and now Belted Galloway cows. James has written several books, and Helen has a book about farm life coming out this summer…all very interesting!

    • I recently read James Rebank’s book, The Shepherd’s Life, published in 2015, about his deeply rooted life of keeping sheep in the Lake District, and I highly recommend it. Like Beatrice Potter, he has a true love for the land and the sheep he tends.

      • I second this recommendation. His writing is beautiful and I enjoyed hearing how Beatrix Potter’s bequest to the National Trust preserved so much of the land in that area.

  • Carol is a delightful history writer. I was engaged throughout. More of Carol, please. Chloe

  • What an informative and delightful read!!! Best reading of each day starts w/ MDK!!!

  • My family name was Potter, and I’ve been a dedicated fan of Beatrix, all my life. YouTube has a channel called CultureVulture, where a fabulous documentary on her can be found.

    • Thank you for the heads up on YouTube. What a wonderful read MDK!

  • Error from previous post! The YouTube channel is Absolute History.

  • What an interesting article – never knew that much about Beatrix Potter. Thank you.

  • I have a very good biography on Miss Potter; it’s time to take it out for another spin. I know the Herdwick wool is more useful for rugs or tweed, but I’ve always wanted to get a few skeins…maybe for a sturdy shawl or something similar.

    Thanks for this!

  • Thanks for another lovely and interesting read. Hope to see more on your blog.

  • Loved the history of Beatrix Potter!

  • Carol, thanks for all of your writing. I refer back to your book on yarns repeatedly!! Beautiful bit of history and story of a beloved children’s author. I’ll have to share a bit more about her with the grandchild as time goes along. And maybe knit a little lamb and name him Henry Herdwick!! Lovely idea to add to the bunnies and ducks in the basket. I’m hoping spring!!!

    • I visited the farm about 20 years ago. I was there in April when all the lambs were being born and playing in the fields. Such fun they were having and that scene of leaping lambs will always stay with me. The Lakes District is a lovely place to visit.

  • Wonderful article that so rounds out the picture of another interesting peron. Thank you.

  • What a wonderful post…I never knew much about Beatrix Potter beyond Peter Rabbit, and thoroughly enjoyed learning about her life and her sheep this morning. I’m looking forward to reading the resources you listed- thank you!

  • She’s one of my heroes! Her outstanding legacy and contributions should make her a hero to many. Delighted to learn she wore clogs too.

  • If you don’t mind a fictionalized Beatrix Potter tied into mysteries, try Susan Wittig Albert’s The Cottage tales of Beatrtix Potter, There are eight books in the series.

  • Now that is a beautiful essay, just beautiful.

  • Check out Rowan Tree Travel for a fiber-focused walking tour of the Lakes District! I (and another commenter above) are on that tour in April 2023! I’m already reading the Lear book, as it is on the RTT reading list for the trip.

  • There was an excellent TV show, The Tale of Beatrix Potter in1982 with Penelope Wilton. It was a two part film as I recall and extremely well done. For some reason it isnt on DVD. perhaps you Brits might clamor for this. PS her accurate and excellent drawings of mushrooms were rejected by Kew Gardens when they found they ad been done by a woman.

  • Thank you for this fascinating article. It has inspired me to read more about Beatrix Potter and Herdwick sheep.

  • Lovely article about Beatrix Potter. I’m fascinated by her ingenuity.

  • I purchased some skeins of Crookabeck Farm Herdwick during my visit to the Lake District ten years ago (which included a tour of the Beatrix Potter farm). My favorite pattern to knit with this very hardy and rustic wool is an alpaca lined mitten. They are perfectly warm and weather resistant mitts. You can find pics of the project and the yarn in my stash on ravelry (I’m sadiebklyn)

    • Thank you for this! What a great idea to line the mittens because Herdwick can be fairly scratchy, but lined, it would be SO warm and wonderfully weather resistant. I have some Herdwick wool that I’ve been wanting to use and couldn’t think how to use it without putting it right up against my skin. Wonderful idea!

  • Thank you for this wonderful article, Carol.

    • {swoons} Thank you, Meg!

  • Is there any connection from Tom Storey, the shepherd, to Martin Storey, pattern designer extraodinaire?

  • I shared this article (which was fascinating) with Susan Wittig Albert, and author who has written a mystery series based on Beatrix Potter’s life and especially her time in the North Country. She also does a lovely monthly almanac with recipes and information about herbs, and has a blog, other regular internet offerings, and a couple of other mystery series and they’re all wonderful. Here’s the link to the Beatrix Potter ones:

  • Thank you, Carol, for this great article and wonderful photographs! The exhibition Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature will be opening at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville on April 7.

  • I read Lear’s biography when it first came out and I highly recommend it. She was an admirable and inspiring woman and the book is very well written.

  • Our own dear Franklin Habit went to London early this year for the Potter exhibit in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He is a student of all things Potter and raved about the show.

  • Really enjoyed this article. I had no idea she did anything but draw. Thank you for enlightening me.

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