Shepherds' Guides: the ‘smit marks’ books of the northern counties

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In 1817 Joseph Walker, a ‘statesman’ of Martindale in Westmorland is recorded to have ‘first sketched a sheep, on a piece of paper, with his own mark, and sent the paper to his neighbour, William Jackson, who sketched his sheep facing the other way, and showing the reverse side.’ From this modest beginning has grown a specifically useful regional aspect of print and print culture history that has lasted for two centuries.

These shepherds’ guides are not books of advice on the rearing and management of sheep, rather they are graphic representations of the combinations of marks: lug (ear), Smit (fleece), horn, and - very occasionally - face burns that adorn the flocks grazing on the open upland areas of the fells and moorlands of the Lake District, the Pennines, the Howgills and adjacent areas. These marks, unique to each flock, form part of the freehold of the farms employing them and have been described as a form of rural heraldry.

My aim is to examine the various editions that cover the Lake District farms (issued every twenty-five years or so) and the Amalgamated Associations farms (issued every decade or so) in order to establish their different methods of production from hand-coloured wood-engravings to photolithography and to attempt to establish their significance to the region’s farming community.

While these books offer a record of farm ownership and tenancy and enable flockmasters to trace the ownership of any ‘lost’ sheep that wander from their native heaf they are also of great use in combating theft. Their use in this manner has been brought into prominence recently when large numbers of rustled sheep have been identified and restored to their owners; indeed a local farmer’s son has been teaching members of local police forces how to use these wonderful books which remain - for the most part - unique to England northern counties.

Members involved in this research

Barry McKay