Smit Markers

Smit markers are tools for making smit marks. How things come together when a person gets interested in a subject. In this case it is Beatrix Potter, a great artist, observer of nature, and nature conservationist. Beatrix Potter saved the Herdwick breed of sheet from almost certain extinction. Tamara and I think the breed is lovely, and we are grateful that Beatrix Potter saved it, both for the simple act of saving an ancient breed, and so that we have the chance to see them.

Tamara and I have spent many an afternoon watching sheep because they are lovely and interesting. And naturally, when you spend time observing, you notice things. And so with Smit Marks. They are the marks that farmers use to mark sheep to identify which animals are in their flock.

Fast forward now to the exhibition of Beatrix Potter’s life, that is on at the V&A in London. Among the drawings and photographs of her life were two iron markers – Smith Markers – for putting dye onto sheep. They were in the shape of a capital H, and the note said that the letter stood for Heelis.

As I said, smit marks are the way that farmers in Britain know which sheep are theirs. When sheep are the length of a field away, ewes know their lambs and lambs know their mothers from their bleats. And the sheep are fenced, so the farmer knows which are his or her flock. But farmers need a quick and simple way to identify the sheep from their flock when they are at market or for the breeds that roam free.

Breeds like the Herdwick roam free on the hills, and then smit marks tell the farmer which flock is his or hers. Breeds like the Herdwick are hefted to the hill. That means they know which is their hill, and they will not wander far from it. Still, it’s good to know which are your sheep.

Heelis Smit Markers

So I saw the smith markers in the exhibition, and the question came to me – why ‘H (Heelis)’? The answer is that Beatrix Potter’s married name was Heelis. In 1913, at the age of 47, she married William Heelis, a local solicitor.

To the question of why the smit marker was in the exhibition, Potter used the profits from her books to help fund her mission to protect the Lake District from development. That included protecting the Herdwick sheep breed.

Herdwicks are upland sheep. They all belong to and have their own heef, an area of unfenced land where they and their parents and their ancestors were born and lived. Farmers need to identify them, and smit marks are the way to do it. Potter bought farms and the Herdwick sheep on them, and so preserved both land and sheep for future generations.

Sheep Breeds and The Sheep Pyramid

Sheep breeding in Britain is based on the idea of the sheep pyramid. Hill sheep in the North Of England and Scotland are mated with sheep of middle England. From there, farmers mate the offspring with lowland sheep in the South of England.

You can read more here about the history of sheep breeding in Britain.

Herdwick could be at the top end of that pyramid but they are not the favoured sheep for breeding. Farmers didn’t like them – neither for their wool, which is coarse, nor their meat, of which there is not enough. That is why the breed needed protecting. Had Beatrix Potter not done as she did, there could well be no Herdwick in Britain today.

You can read more about Beatrix Potter’s role in preserving the Herdwick breed in this article.


Beatrix was hugely important in the creation of the National Trust. She and her friends in the National Trust bought farms side by side to lessen the risk of development. By the time of her death in 1943 she owned several farms – more than 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) – in the Lake District. And she dedicated them to the newly formed charity, the National Trust – to be transferred to the trust on the death of her husband, who died in 1945.

In recognition of the part that Beatrix played, the head office of the National Trust in Swindon in Wiltshire is named Heelis. In keeping with the principles of the Trust, the building is ‘green’, with two thirds less carbon emissions than similar developments.

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