One of the earliest references to shepherd huts is found in the ‘Government of Cattel’ published in 1596 written by Leonard Mascal Clerk of the Kitchen for The Archbishop of Canterbury.
“in some place the Shepheard hath his cabin going upon a wheele to remove here and there at his pleasure”
By the 1800s, shepherd huts would have been a familiar sight in rural England. A Victorian solution for providing convenient shelter for herdsmen. A shepherd hut was a big investment for a farm or estate but very necessary to protect the shepherd from an often bleak environment. Shepherd Huts cost the equivalent of up to 6 months of the shepherd’s salary, however the ownership of the huts stayed with the landowners rather than the shepherds. Prior to 1829, the huts were made of timber, with a coating of pitch or tar for weatherproofing until the use of corrugated steel was introduced.
Sheep farming has been common in most areas of Britain for many centuries, however the use of shepherd huts tended to be used on lowland farms. This was due to the unsuitability for the huts to have been manoeuvred on rugged or boggy terrain. Therefore it was mainly on the downs of the lower England regions, from the eastern edges of Wales, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex, Norfolk and up to Lincolnshire, that the shepherd huts became a part of British sheep farming for generations. Having a shepherd hut meant the sheep could be left out all year long and the shepherd could be close to their flock at all times. Having a shepherd on hand was crucial to a good lambing season. These huts proved to be of financial and logistical benefit to farmers. The ability for the farmer to move the sheep on either his own or a neighbouring farmers land, benefited crop production. Not only could the sheep be grazed and fattened on large areas of pasture, but also used to nibble the sprouts of other crops, such as wheat which actually stimulates growth but also provided another food source to fatten the sheep. Another benefit of being able to move the flock is the fertilisation of the fields with sheep manure. This solution can only work if the flock are carefully managed. It was the shepherd hut which enabled close management of grazing techniques. Any area where sheep / wool trade was key to the economy, and the weather allowed the sheep to graze all year round, it is very likely you would have seen a shepherds hut. Before the invention of artificial fertilisers, many farms had areas which were inaccessible to the large farm manure wagons. These farms would have a visit from the shepherd and his shepherd hut, his flock and usually a sheepdog. The flock would be penned in by wooden hurdles, not allowed to roam freely. This process was called ‘folding’. Once the land had been grazed, the shepherd and his hut, his flock and the dog would move on, the land would then be ploughed, returning all the nutrients from the droppings back into the ground.
The shepherds hut would have contained a small stove, a straw bed, over a cage where the lambs could be kept, this was known as a lamb rack. Also usually there was a simple medicine cupboard, containing various potions for sickly lambs and maybe also the shepherds.
The first world war brought around many changes in farming practices, Large scale production of ammonium nitrate used to manufacture explosives, provided a cost effective solution for feeding the land. As did the introduction of the tractor meant that land that was before needed to be grazed by livestock, could now be turned over by the plough. Finally the increase in importation of lamb from abroad due to improved animal transportation and early uses of refrigeration. With regards to the wool trade, it has long since declined due to introduction of cotton.
By the second world war, the shepherd huts enjoyed a new lease of life, becoming guard posts and also providing accommodation for prisoners of war who were used as farm labourers.
By the 1950’s most shepherd huts had become redundant, most had been pushed into a wood to provide storage for gamekeeper and had been abandoned the edge of a field, or in extreme cases were simply destroyed.
Thankfully Shepherds Huts are enjoying a resurgence today. The quiet understated gentle charm of a shepherd hut is much appreciated and enjoyed. The beautifully, yet practically crafted shepherd hut is an enhancement to any location.