LANDSCAPES | FARMING | HISTORY | ALTERNATIVE BRITAIN
The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Shepherds’ Huts
A century ago, many spring lambs began their lives in the warmth of a shepherd’s hut. After falling into disuse, these rustic wagons are now enjoying a new lease of life as a quiet place to work, paint or relax.
Behind a tall, tree-height hedge — no, make that more or less within the hedge, in and among the tangle of hawthorn stems and beech branches — lies a heavy-set shed, engulfed by nature.
On closer inspection, the shed turns out to have cast iron wheels and a rusty corrugated iron skin that bends into a slightly disfigured barrel roof.
Askew in a sylvan snare, derelict and deserted, the whole has a rakish air of impending collapse. Here lies a shepherd hut, left more or less on its last journey, overtaken by 70 years or so of marking time.
In the early 20th-century, this hut would have cost the farmer a figure equivalent to around half a year’s wages for the shepherd who would use it. If he bought its equivalent now, it could easily cost more than £20,000, because this humble vehicle has acquired a certain farmhouse chic.
Like gingham tablecloths and Cornish Ware jugs full of cream, the shepherd hut (after years spent quietly rusting away in field corners) has become the latest comeback in the vogue for rural things in fresh settings. Its modern makeover, however, masks a history that amounts to a snapshot of rural life from the 18th to early 20th centuries.
Roaming and rounding up
Sheep seem quite haphazard animals, but on the chalk downs of southern England from the 16th century on, management of them took on an almost military level of precision.
The technique was so successful that it endured for centuries. The sheep roamed over the turf during the day but were rounded up by the shepherd into folds every night, where they might be fed on more nutritious fare…