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History of Shepherd's Huts
Shepherd's huts can be traced back to the 16th century thanks to a few very early publications which provides us with a first glimpse of a wheeled Shepherds hut in the form that we currently recognise:
"in some place the Shepheard hath his cabbin going upon a wheele for to remove here and there at his pleasure" is an extract from these early works portraying the shepherd's accommodation in line with his status as a very important member of the farming community during this time.
Shepherd's huts were widely used throughout England and Wales in the 19th and early 20th century. Most huts were built by small agricultural engineering firms or constructed on the farm out of locally sourced materials. A shepherd's hut was a big investment for a farm or an estate, costing the equivalent of up to 6 months of the shepherd's salary. They followed a similar basic design with a curved corrugated iron roof, hinged stable door and small windows on each side to allow the shepherd to keep an eye on his flock. The hut had strong axles with cast iron wheels to withstand the constant movement from field to field.
The shepherd's hut was a kitchen, dining room, bedroom, sitting room and storeroom all rolled into one. The interior of the hut was simply furnished and contained a small stove, a straw bed over a cage where lambs could be kept (known as a Lamb rack) and a simple medicine cupboard containing various potions to revive a sickly lamb or possibly the shepherd!
Before the introduction of artificial fertilizers, distant pastures from the farm, which were normal inaccessible to the large farm manure wagons, would have had a visit from the shepherd and his flock of sheep. The sheep were not allowed to wander freely but were kept enclosed behind wooden hurdles. This process was called 'folding'. Once the forage crop had been grazed, the sheep, shepherd, his dog and hut, would move to pastures new. The land would then be ploughed, returning the nutrients in the sheep droppings back to the land.
First World War
The First World War would see big changes in farming practices. Large scale production of ammonium nitrate for the manufacture of explosives provided for the first time a cost effective artificial fertiliser that could be used for the land. Combined with the advent of the tractor at the same time, the need for large flocks to fold the land went into steep decline. Many fields normally used for grazing could for the first time be turned to the plough and more lucrative cereals replaced the one time grazing meadows. The final straw was the rising importation of lamb from abroad due to improved meat transportation, including early forms of refrigeration.
Home guard outposts
The medieval wool trade had long since declined in favour of cotton and although there was a peak during the two World wars, it was too little too late for an industry in decline. By 1939, many old huts found a new lease of life as home guard outposts, in fact in some parts of the country we have heard the term 'Home guard roofs' used when referring to the pitched roof of a hut. Many farms were allocated prisoners of war to works as labourers and shepherd's huts were used to provide temporary accommodation.
A few huts carried on providing comfort and shelter to their shepherd, but by around 1950, most were either pushed into a wood to provide somewhere for the gamekeeper to store his pheasant feed or abandoned on the edge of a field or worse still broken up and burnt as they had became redundant.
Rural Retreats in Wales
Advert for a shepherd's hut dated 1896 found in a Farm year journal. Reproduced by kind permission of the Historial Shepherds Hut website: www.shepherdshut.co.uk
"Lambs on Crapham Down, near Eastbourne". Photo: G. A. Lock. Source: Sussex County Magazine, May 1938