In the old days, the shepherd hut provided a temporary home for British shepherds as they cared for herds of grazing sheep. Usually made of wood, corrugated iron, or a mixture of the two, the versatile farm tool was used at various times of the year, but mostly at lambing time, when the shepherd used hurdles to contain ewes about to lamb.
Shepherds slept in the hut amongst the sheep in order to be nearby and help with birthing, nursing sick lambs, and enclosing newborn lambs and their mothers onto fresh pasture. Under the shepherd’s simple bunk there was often a “lamb rack,” which was essentially a cage to put weak lambs in so they could be kept warm and fed regularly.
Apart from the bed, there was likely a small stove, a table, and a cupboard for food and medicine — and little else. The hut itself usually belonged to a farmer, and when it was necessary to contain sheep in a certain area, perhaps for fattening or for lambing, the hut was towed out to the pastures either by horse, steam traction engine, or later by tractor.
Past to present
Shepherd huts hark back to a time when every decent-sized farm employed a shepherd, and when much of our land remained unfenced. But farming has changed a great deal since then. Whilst we still farm sheep extensively here in the United Kingdom, with the exception of some of the mountains and moorlands, most of our grazing land has long since been enclosed by fences. What’s more, most of us have outbuildings in which to house our lambing sheep, and almost all of us have “farm bikes” that enable us to quickly drive around the land checking on sheep. So, our humble shepherd huts have become somewhat redundant, and the memory of them is almost lost in the mists of time.
I say almost, because in the last few years, shepherd huts have been making something of a comeback, albeit with a completely different purpose than the original. It seems that these simple huts on wheels have captured the romantic hearts of our nation, for we have started building shepherd’s huts once again, after a long break.
Whilst there are many “new build” shepherd huts existing in the U.K. — oftentimes built for higher-end camping — there are just a few hundred of the original shepherd huts remaining in Britain. By original, I mean a hut that was designed and used as a dwelling for shepherds, as opposed to a new-build hut, or replica, designed for the tourist camping industry or some other purpose. By the mid-20th century, shepherd huts had ceased to be built commercially, so any originals seen today are at least 70 years old, some a good deal older. My interest in shepherd huts is with these old, original huts. A replica hut can be a beautiful thing, there’s no doubt about that, but one thing the replica doesn’t have is the history, the feel that in a very different time, a person lived, worked, and slept in this dwelling. A new hut has little story behind it, although on some farms across the U.S., rural enthusiasts might park them on the back 40 for a cool picnic spot, camping structure, or some other use, and indeed make new stories.
The earliest shepherd huts were wooden structures covered in canvas and coated with tar, which once neglected would soon rot away in our damp climate. Find such a hut today, and it is likely that nothing but the ironwork survived. But in terms of complete huts, survivors tend to date from the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Shepherd huts dating from around 1850 onwards tend to have corrugated iron on the roof, and sometimes clad onto the sides, too, which helps them to survive. We know that any original hut found with corrugated iron in the construction has to be post-1820s, since corrugated iron wasn’t actually invented until the 1820s.
We think shepherd huts continued to be commercially built right up until 1954, with H&C Farris of Coombe Bissett being the last known company to sell them, with these late huts being built by the late Mr. John Judd. Of course, individuals might have built huts for their own needs since then, but commercially, the need for shepherd huts had vanished by the 1950s.
The earliest British reference to the wheeled shepherd hut comes from the 16th century, but shepherd huts didn’t really become popular until the Victorian era, with many producers of farm equipment beginning to offer shepherd, or “watchers,” huts as part of their range. In Thomas Hardy’s famous 1874 book Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy describes shepherd Gabriel Oak’s hut:
“The hut stood on little wheels, which raised its floor about a foot from the ground. Such shepherds’ huts are dragged into the fields when the lambing season comes on, to shelter the shepherd in his enforced nightly attendance.”
Hardy goes on to describe how during the night, Oak watches over the flock, penned in by wooden hurdles, and how he brings a weak lamb back to the hut, where a can of milk is warming on the stove.
“The inside of the hut, as it now presented itself, was cosy (sic) and alluring, and the scarlet handful of fire in addition to the candle, reflecting its own genial colour upon whatever it could reach, flung associations of enjoyment even over utensils and tools. In the corner stood the sheep-crook, and along a shelf at one side were ranged bottles and canisters of the simple preparations pertaining to ovine surgery and physic; spirits of wine, turpentine, tar, magnesia, ginger, and castor-oil being the chief.”
Very few shepherds owned the huts themselves. A new hut could cost half a year’s wages for a shepherd, so most of the time, huts were owned by the farm. The hut’s main use was during lambing time, but they were also used when sheep were “folded” (contained by wooden hurdles) onto a crop to eat the crop and in turn fertilize the land. These temporary fences would be moved daily, similar to the electric fences farmers use today for strip-grazing crops. Sometimes the hut might be used to house farm workers employed in other tasks apart from shepherding work, such as harvesting crops or timber, and also by gamekeepers.
World War I saw a decline in the use of shepherd huts; we lost many of our male farm laborers during this time, and we began to see a change in farming methods as work became more mechanized and less labor-intensive. By World War II, chemical fertilizers were discovered, and the old method of penning sheep onto an area to provide fertilizer in the form of manure was disappearing. Old shepherd huts suddenly found another use — they began to be used to provide sleeping accommodations for prisoners of war, especially those working on the land. In the 1950s, there might have been a handful of shepherd huts still being used for their original purpose, but these were probably used by a few stalwarts, clinging to the old ways. Certainly by the ’60s any remaining shepherd huts would have been parked up and forgotten, or worse still, used for firewood.
Original huts, used by long-since passed-away shepherds, house lifetimes of memories: Old graffiti can be seen on the inside of some of the original shepherd huts, and it often hints at hard times. In some instances, shepherds kept a record written on the hut walls of lambs born and dates, but much of what we find written is of the weather endured, with many references made to the bitter, biting cold and the relentless rain. It couldn’t have been easy lighting a fire with damp wood, drying wet clothes, and preparing food in such meager surroundings.
The future of Britain’s old huts lies in the hands of a few dedicated enthusiasts, or “huttists” as they amusingly call themselves, people like Ian McDonald. Ian is the founder of Historic Shepherd Huts website, www.ShepherdHuts.co.uk, and is without a doubt a confirmed huttist. Ian knows of some 350 original huts, many of which were abandoned and left to rot in the hedgerows as our farming methods changed. Ian and his wife, Carol, became fascinated with shepherd huts when they themselves rescued an old hut and restored it for use as an art studio for Carol.
Ian is passionate about recording the whereabouts of old huts and is keen in helping find homes for unwanted, derelict huts. A derelict hut can easily be mistaken for a rotten old shed, especially if the wheels have sunk into the soil and undergrowth. As Ian explains, “Many old huts have been burnt, and the wheels have been scrapped, as their owners have sadly failed to realize the historic value of these old dwellings.”
Ian explains that huts can sometimes be dated and linked to a region by not just a maker’s nameplate (if there is one), but also by the design. Ian has a wealth of material in the form of brochures and history of various hut makers, including “Mallons of Swaffham,” “Boulton & Paul of Norwich,” “Roots of Dereham,” and “Taskers of Andover,” to name just a few. Ian is happy to help people identify an old hut they’ve found, and is always keen to extend his archive of photographs and information on old huts and their producers.
“A great deal can be learned about a hut’s history by simply asking around; older people who have long lived in a region might remember the hut, who used it, and when,” Ian says. Sometimes a little detective work is involved when identifying a hut, but Ian thinks it’s important that brochures, sales literature, and photographs are preserved as well as the huts themselves.
Ian keeps a catalogue of the original huts he knows of, but as he says, “We have only scraped the surface so far, there must be many more huts out there, sitting in the corners of fields or woods.”
Ian owns two huts of his own, which he restored with the help of fellow huttists: a large hut that dates from around 1880, and another made by Mallons of Swaffham, which, judging by the papers found lining the interior, dates from 1892.
Ian has made some useful contacts over the years and is happy to share the information he has gleaned through his own restoration projects and research. He has contacts that can help with moving a hut, (which is not as simple as it sounds, as unsympathetic lifting and hauling can seriously damage an old hut) and he can also provide information on sourcing material and buying or repairing wheels and axles — and what’s more, he doesn’t charge for the information he provides. “It’s rewarding enough for us to help find these huts a good home and ensure they are preserved for future generations,” he says.
Check out our illustrated guide to shearing sheep.
Josephine Roberts is a freelance heritage writer based in the foothills of Snowdonia, North Wales. She lives on an old-fashioned smallholding (small farm) with chickens, ducks, sheep, and vintage tractors.