UNITED Utilities has defended the reduction in size of one of the biggest hefted Herdwick flocks in the Lake District.

The company, which owns West Head Farm, Thirlmere, advertised for a contract shepherd after the current tenant announced he wanted to end the tenancy early.

The contract shepherd will be tasked with maintaining a smaller hefted Herdwick flock including 350 breeding ewes, 100 shearlings, 100 hoggs and nine tups. It is to be maintained at this level for the next four years.

However, the move has been bemoaned in some quarters. Viv Lewis, of the Federation of Cumbria Commoners, described the action as a “slippery slope”.

She said: “This farm housed one of the Herdwick nuclear flocks. We have lost one of the best flocks in the area. It is a decimation of hefting systems by large landowners.”

Armathwaite farmer Dr Julia Aglionby, who is also director of the Foundation for Common Land, said Herdwick flocks lay at “the heart” of West Head, and it was disappointing to see it no longer being let as a farm.

In a statement, United Utilities said it was not the end for Herdwick sheep at West Head Farm, but in the immediate term it had to make sure the sheep were looked after when the current tenant left.

“We are also responsible for delivering the remaining four years of the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme which will we will be inheriting from the tenant, with all its associated funding being reinvested into the farm,” said a spokesperson.

“The success of this approach will help us determine the next steps when our HLS scheme comes to an end.

“Our plans are long term and still developing, but we are clearly committed to the World Heritage status of the farm and therefore retaining a flock of Herdwicks, albeit in smaller numbers.

“This will work as part of a wider model including more forestry, restoring the natural landscape and improving biodiversity.”