Beyond Peter Rabbit: Beatrix Potter & Her Sheep
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.
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.”
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).