It is thought that the shepherd's hut (or shepherd's wagon) has been a feature of farming since the 15th Century, and well into the 20th Century.
It was used by shepherds during sheep rearing and the lambing season of February and March as the sheep give birth to the young lambs. This is the busiest and most intensive time of the shepherd’s year and having a place to sleep and eat near the flock was essential. It was mostly seen in the United Kingdom and France. Shepherd's huts were often fitted with iron wheels and corrugated iron tops and sometimes the sides were made of corrugated iron.
The other purpose of the huts was the traditional way that many of the lowland sheep farms used sheep to improve the land. In the upland areas of Cumbria for example, the land was either too steep or too boggy for these wheeled huts to have widespread use. But in the Cotswolds and the South Downs, the land was more gently sloping. However, in these areas the upland ground was often poor and stony.
To improve the land for the growing of cereal crops, sheep were gathered into fields in concentrated areas called folds. The sheep ate the grass or other forage crop leaving behind them fertiliser (sheep poo) that helped to improve the fertility of the stony ground and it was then ploughed and oats, barley or wheat were planted. As the flock moved on the hut could be pulled along to a new location to keep up with the sheep. First mention of wheeled shepherd’s huts can be found in the early 1600s.
Use of shepherd's huts by farmers reached a peak in the late 19th century and dwindled in the 20th century with the advent of mechanised farm machinery and electric power reaching even remote farms. Their use persisted in some northern counties in the United Kingdom, particularly Westmoreland and Northumberland, where the terrain of the uplands supported little else but sheep farming.
The shepherd's hut was used as a kitchen, dining room, bedroom, sitting room and storeroom all rolled into one, and saved the sheep farmer the need for a lengthy trek back to the farmhouse for food and sleep. The designs varied but all were constructed to provide the shepherd with practical and durable accommodation. The old huts had a stove in one corner for warmth and cooking, and a window on each side so the shepherd could see his flock. A hinged stable door, which was always positioned away from the prevailing wind, enabled him to hear the flock, and strong axles with cast iron wheels were used to withstand the constant movement from field to field.
Probably the most romanticised shepherd’s hut was the one used by Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s book Far from the Madding Crowd. The most recent adaptation starring Carey Mulligan was filmed close to where we currently build our huts in Sherborne.
Good use of space was essential for the nomadic sheep farmer, who would often need to find space for an orphaned lamb, and his trusty sheepdog.
We have tried to make our huts as space efficient as possible, but included many of the modern trappings of comfortable living. In addition to space for an orphaned lamb or two, we have added a shower, toilet, kitchen, comfortable double bed and wood burning stove. This is all kept cosy with thick sheep’s wool insulation under the cedar cladding.