Historic Shepherds’ Huts

Old-fashioned shepherd’s hut continues to provide shelter for both sheep and shepherd.

  • Traditional hut or caravan in the Sussex countryside in England.
    Photo by iStockphoto.com/bunsview
  • In the old days, a shepherd hut wasn’t only shelter from the elements for the lone laborer.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • In the old days, a shepherd hut wasn’t only shelter from the elements for the lone laborer, they were also medicine closets, animal care quarters, and more.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • The inside of an old hut can tell the shepherd's story.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • Sometimes the wheels of an old shepherd hut are buried so well that a person might mistake the structure for an abandoned building.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • In North America, the shepherd hut has regained some popularity as a utility structure you might tow out to the back 40 for a tool supply building; or simply a favorite picnic destination.
    Photo by Josephine Roberts
  • Gritty makes a mighty fine shepherd.
    Illustration by Brad Anderson

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.

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