The basic function of these portable agricultural buildings were; in a nutshell:
- Provide portable shelter for the shepherd and a store for his tools
- A bed for the night and a simple table
- A safe place to store medicines required for the flock
- An emergency shelter for orphaned or injured Lambs
The archetypal Shepherds Hut was a corrugated iron clad rectangular wooden shed structure with a curved corrugated roof. The shed would be mounted on wagon base on four wrought iron wheels with steps leading to a door at one end. The Hut 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 for reviving the lambs. A storm lantern, bags of feedstuff and basic kitchenware completed the contents. The sheepdog slept in the dry under the Hut.
Huts were most commonly found on the English down-lands in the late 18th and 19th Century, and primarily served as the shepherd’s home during lambing time. As in biblical times, the shepherd “watched his flock by night”, regularly checking on the enfolded flock throughout the night. It was a solitary, 24 hour a day job, with the Hut often remotely sited, often two miles or more from the farmhouse.
Whilst the ‘classic’ Hut is a late 18th or early 19th Century development, portable shelters have existed for far longer with, for example, reference to a wheeled Shepherds Hut by one Leonard Mascal, who produced a number of early works on rural life. His titles covered subjects such as fishing, plants and one entitled ‘Government of Cattel’ published in 1596. This manual was split into three sections. The third devoted to: “discoursing the order of sheep, goats, hogs, and dogs, with true remedies to help the infirmities that befall any of them : also perfect instructions for taking of moales, and likewise for the monthly husbanding of grounds.”
A small, yet important, description appears in this book “in some place the Shepheard hath his cabbin going upon a wheele for to remove here and there at his pleasure”.
This is probably the very first mention of a Shepherd’s Hut in a form that we would recognise today.
The design of the Hut were vernacular and reflected local terrain, for example in many upland areas, boggy ground or steep gradients prevented the use of a mobile hut and a more permanent buildings, sometimes referred to as a ‘lookers hut’ were built to protect the shepherd and the lambs in an often bleak and hostile environment.
The Hut also had a secondary function outside lambing time. Before the advent of artificial fertilizers, on many mixed farms with distant pastures far from the farm, which were inaccessible to the manure wagons, fertilising the land fell to the flock. 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 mobile home; the Hut, would move on to pastures new. The land would then be ploughed over, returning the nutrients in the droppings to the land.
The First World War brought big changes in farming practices. Large scale production of Ammonium Nitrate, used in the manufacturer of explosives, provided for the first time a cost-effective, concentrated ‘artificial’ feed for the land. This reduced the need for large flocks to fold the land. Many fields normally used for grazing could, for the first time, be turned to the plough and more lucrative cereal crops replace grazing meadows. The final straw was the increase in the importation of lamb from abroad due to improved meat transportation, including early forms of refrigeration. Those meadows that did escape were finally ploughed over in the Second World War to meet the need for self-sufficiency in cereal crops and where never returned.
The medieval woollen trade had long since declined in favor of cotton and although there was a peak in production 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 the term ‘Home Guard roofs’ was used when referring to a pitched roof on a Hut. Many were also used as temporary accommodation, at the end of the war to house displaced persons and prisoners of war. Many farms being allocated one or two laborers from the large number of POW camps set up towards the end of the war.
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; abandoned on the edge of a field; or worse, broken-up and burnt as they became redundant.