“And to the shepherd’s hut on distant hills…” William Wordsworth – The Prelude
Shepherd huts were a common site in the English countryside during the 18th century and it’s widely believed that they originated around this time however further investigation traces them back to the 15th century.
French artist, Simon Marmion’s (1425 – 1489) “Annunciation to the Shepherds” depicts a French styled shepherd’s hut or roulette and is one of several paintings by artists at that time containing similar wheeled buildings.
Early huts would have been constructed from timber and other organic materials such as hide so it’s unsurprising that there are no examples of huts pre 1800s as they have no doubt succumbed to the very elements they had been designed to provide shelter from.
The mid-1800s saw the introduction of corrugated tin to the construction process providing huts with a much more durable, waterproof finish. Lucky shepherds would have had their tin huts insulated with sheep’s wool then clad in matchboard. Those less fortunate would have had unlined huts which must have been excruciatingly cold during the winter. One hut restorer found doodles on the walls of the hut he was renovating bemoaning that it was; “cold enough to kill the devil.” Although this must have been a brutal existence it would still have been favourable to sleeping under a bush which was the alternative.
Shepherd huts were relatively expensive and so they were usually purchased by landowners for the use of their shepherds’. Despite the cost, the huts made a wise investment choice for most estate owners as they enabled better flock and land management. Accompanied sheep could remain at pasture year round considerably reducing overwintering costs and enriching the land with organic fertiliser and flocks would have 24 hour attention during the vitally important lambing season.
‘The little speck of life he placed on a wisp of hay before the small stove, where a can of milk was simmering… A rather hard couch, formed of a few corn sacks thrown carelessly down, covered half the floor of this little habitation, and here the young man stretched himself along, loosened his woollen cravat, and closed his eyes.
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. On a triangular shelf across the corner stood bread, bacon, cheese, and a cup for ale or cider, which was supplied from a flagon beneath. – Thomas Hardy – Far From the Madding Crowd (1874)
Shepherd huts fell out of use as farming methods changed. The price of wool declined as other fabrics became widely available resulting in smaller flock sizes. New fertilisers meant that animals could be fattened more quickly from a smaller area and the introduction of tractors allowed farmers to reach their flocks quickly so it was no longer cost effective or necessary to pay a shepherd to remain with the sheep year round.
After lying forgotten and forlorn across England’s farmlands these historic mobile buildings are being rediscovered. Shepherd huts are now used for a wealth of purposes from farms looking to diversify into “glamp” sites to garden offices, spare bedrooms, craft rooms and even saunas but the basic form of the shepherd’s hut remains; a timber frame clad in tin or wood atop four cast iron wheels with casement windows to peep from and a stable door to peer over. The option to include the traditional wood burning stove and a comfortable bed is entirely yours!