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Smit Marks

sheep with smit mark

These notes are about the smit marks used to distinguish the farm and owner of sheep in Westmorland and Cumberland, recorded in Shepherd's Guides from 1817 to the present day; the smit marks are used alongside cropping of ears, branding on horns, and more recently ear tags. The smit mark is a bold stroke or pop, spot, or other coloured mark on the sheep's body, that can be seen clearly from a distance. The ear crop and horn brand, and ear tag, are only readable close at hand.


I am grateful to various institutions and people for their help in gathering these notes:-
Kendal Library and Carlisle Library local studies sections; John Bennett, Ruth Fishwick, Richard Simpson, Geoff Wayne, Barry McKay, George Akrigg, and others.

Shepherd's Guide

About 1817 a sheep farmer in Martindale, Joseph Walker, had the idea of collecting and publishing wool marks of sheep in various areas as a guide to shepherds: if a stray is found you know where it belongs; or more practically, at a shepherds' meet or gathering, you can quickly claim your own.
source type: Walker 1817
Joseph Walker wrote:-
THE SHEPHERDS' GUIDE, or a Delineation of the Wool and Ear-marks of the different Stocks of Sheep, in Martindale, Barton, Askham, Helton, Bampton, Measand, Mardale, Long Sleddale, Kentmere, Applethwaite, Troutbeck, Ambleside, and Rydal. To which is prefixed an Index, showing the Proprietors' Names and Places of Abode. With a description of the Marks.
PREFACE.- My first inducement to engage in this book was the favourable opinion entertained of the plan by several shepherds to whom I communicated it, and the success it has met with since its commencement is sufficient to show that extensive benefit which is likely to result from it: it has not been presented to any sheep-breeder that has not considered it of the greatest importance; the number of subscribers sufficiently proves the fact. Indeed its importance is so self-evident as to supercede any apology in bringing it before the public. It is well known to every proprietor of sheep, how apt they are to stray from their owners; and, consequently, either from not knowing the proper owner, or from a worse cause, (the fraudulent intention of the discoverer) are often entirely lost to him. Now my object in bringing this work before the public is to lay down a plan by which every one may have it in his power to know the owner of a stray sheep, and to restore it to him: and that it may act as an antidote against the fraudulent practices too often followed,- in a word, restore to every man his own.
I considered the best mode of representing the wool and ear-marks would be to have printed delineations of the animals on which the respective marks might be laid down, and to which the printed description would serve as the index. I have endeavoured to make the work as intelligible as possible: but as I have never seen any treatise on the same subject, I cannot say but that improvements might have been introduced, and that imperfections may occur, but these I hope the good-natured reader will overlook.
I cannot conclude without acknowledging the great assistance I have derived from Richard Mounsey and William Jackson of Martindale.
The format is simple. Each page of a shepherd's guide has three pairs of sheep drawn in outline, facing each other ie showing the near and far sides. Near side is the sheep's left, far side the right (I haven't yet discover why). The sheep's ears are drawn extra large, so that the ear crop can be shown clearly. Under each drawing are the names of the farmer, farm and the flock. Example:-

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JOHN MATTINSON, Middale. / Upper fold bitted far ear, a red stroke down the far shoulder, M on the far side, IM on the horn and a figure.
Middale is a farm in Longsleddale; most illustrations used in these notes are from that valley, chosen because I live there.
Further notes are made from a series of shepherd's guides:-


Smit marks were once made with a rudball, made from red haematite iron ore. Or a ruddle might be made by boiling up a mixture of grease, Stockholm tar, and Venetian red. Nowadays there are chemical preparations to be bought.

Sheep Stealing

A 19th century handbill:-
Sheep Stealing. / Five Guineas REWARD. / Whereas for about twenty years past Sheep and Lambs have been annually stolen from the Montain Sheep Pastures belonging to the Black Hall and Gaitscale Estates, at the head of the division of Ulpha, in the parish of Millom, Cumberland, and the Framer there has not been able to detect the thief or thieves. / Nitice id hereby given, / that if any Sheep or Lambs shall infuture be stolen from the Flocks belonging to either Estate, any peron giving such information to Mr. GEORGE TYSON of Black Hall, as shall lead to the Offender or Offenders to conviction, shall receive a reward of Five Guineas. / THE MARKS ARE; / BLACK HALL STOCK.- A red smit stroke down the near side; and both Ears cropped and upper Key bitted. / GAITSCALE STOCK.- A red smit mark over the Shoulder; and some of them also a red pop on the near Hook Bone, as a gathering mark for a particular part of the pasture; and both Ears cropped and under Key bitted. / Last year a Lamb of the Black Hall Stock which had been stolen, returned with one Ear cut off leaving the appearance of a Short Fork. / N.B. - Any communication made to Mr. WILLIAM BLENDALL, Solicitor, Broughton in Furness, will be forwarded to Mr. TYSON. / Black Hall, 18th Augt 18[2 ] / MARY TYSON, PRINTER, KING STREET, ULVERSTON.

Old Print

An engraving in the volume 2 of Westmorland, Cumberland, Durham and Northumberland Illustrated, published by Thomas Rose, 1832, is:-
Brother's water from Kirkstone Foot, drawn by Thomas Allom, engraved by R Sands

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Look carefully at the sheep; there is a smit mark, two strokes along the far side rib. As yet I haven't traced this mark, but the artist is unlikely to have made it up.

A Painting

A detail from the Gates of Borrowdale, painted by Frederick Clive Newcom (1847-94):-

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The red mark does not look like a tup's mark, it does look a little like the mark still used at Fold Head Farm, Watendlath, Borrowdale.
button Shepherd's Guide, Joseph Walker, 1817.
button Shepherd's Guide, James Moore, 1824.
button Shepherd's Guide, J Brown, 1835.
button Shepherd's Guide, H Brown, 1848.
button Shepherd's Guide, William Hodgson, 1849.
button Shepherd's Guide, B T Sweeten, 1853
button Shepherd's Guide, Robert Bailey, 1869.
button Shepherd's Guide, Daniel Gate, 1879.
button Shepherd's Guide, Robinson, Dent and Vickers, 1885.
button Shepherd's Guide, Craven Co, 1899.
button Shepherds' Guide, Lambert, Robinson and Stephenson, 1907.
button Shepherd's Guide, Thomas Wilson, 1913.
button Shepherds' Guide, R H Lamb, 1927.
button Shepherd's Guide, R H Lamb, 1937.
button Shepherds' Guide, Wilkinson, Wales, Wilkinson and Beck, 1960.
button Shepherds Guide, Malcolm Short, 1967.
button Shepherds Guide, Brown and Rawling 1985
button Shepherds Guide, Brown 2005
button Smit Marks, Longsleddale, 2005-06
button Sheep Markers, 2006
button Technicolor Sheep


Bailey, Robert (?): 1869: Shepherd's Guide (printer, Keswick, Cumberland):: Carlisle Library

Brown, G F & Rawling, W: 1985: Lakeland Shepherds' Guide: (Ennerdale Bridge, Cumbria):: Kendal Library

Brown, Geoff (et al): 2005: Lakeland Shepherds' Guide: Lakeland Shepherds' Guide Committee (Ennerdale, Cumbria)

Brown, H (?): 1848: Shepherd's Guide: Brown, H (printer, Penrith, Cumberland):: Carlisle Library

Brown, J (?): 1835: Shepherd's Guide: Brown, J (printer, Penrith, Cumberland):: Carlisle Library

Gate, Daniel: 1879: Gate's New Shepherds Guide: Brash Bros (printer, Cockermouth, Cumberland):: Kendal Library

Hart, Edward: 1977: Hill Shepherd: David and Charles (Newton Abbot, Devon):: ISBN 0 7153 7483 4

Hodgson, William: 1849: Shepherd's Guide: Soulby, S (printer, Ulverston, Lancashire):: Kendal Library

Lamb, R H: 1927: Shepherds' Guide:: Carlisle Library

Lamb, R H: 1937: Lamb's Shepherds Guide: Herald Printing Co (printer, Penrith, Cumberland):: Kendal Library

Lambert, R W & Robinson, George & Stephenson, Mosley: 1907: Shepherds' Guide: Ward, A and E (printer etc, Barnard Castle, Northumberland)

Moore, James: 1824: Shepherd's Guide::: Kendal Library

Powley, Miss: 1876: Past and Present among the Northern Fells: TransCWAAS: 1st series vol.2: pp.354-374

Robinson, John & Dent, A C & Vickers, William: 1885: Shepherds' Guide: Ward, William (printer, Barnard Castle, Northumberland):: Kendal Library

Rollinson, William: 1974: Life and Tradition in the Lake District: Dent, J M and Co (London):: ISBN 0 460 07847 X

Sweeten, B T (?): 1853: Shepherd's Guide: Sweeten, B T (printer, Penrith, Cumberland):: Carlisle Library

Walker, Joseph: 1817: Shepherd's Guide: Stephen, T (Penrith, Cumberland)

Wilkinson & Wales & Wikinson & Beck: 1960: Shepherds' Guide: Ramsden Williams Publications (Consett, Durham):: Carlisle Library

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