Drove Roads, What are They?

Drove roads, sometimes called drovers’ roads, are historic routes where livestock were traditionally driven from one place to another.

Drove roads can be relatively recent in origin or date back to medieval times. Many following old Roman routes. Their style often depends upon the topography of the area.

By the end of the 18th century, it has been estimated that around 100,000 cattle and 750,000 sheep, alongside various turkeys, geese and pigs, arrived at Smithfield Market in London annually from different locations around the UK and under the watchful eye of drovers.


The Purpose of Drove Roads

Drove roads were designed to move large herds or flocks of animals, so they were commonly wider than standard roads. Compare this to Packhorse routes which are often pretty narrow as the horses moved in single file. Drove roads are usually a minimum of 40 feet wide, and there are examples of more than double that.

The Design of Drove Roads

Controlling animals and driving them securely in one direction often required using different features on the land. In Wales, many drove roads are set low into the countryside and make use of high earth walls or hedges.

Read More: How Were Roman Roads Built?

The same can be seen in Cornwall with their famous Cornish hedges, actually a mix of earth and stone and often covered in vegetation. A lesson many tourists learn to their cost!

Men on foot or horseback controlled livestock, and sometimes dogs were used.

Routes could be long and convoluted. Sometimes, dogs were sent home alone after a journey, literally retracing their steps and being fed at farms along the way, payment for which would be made by the drover on his next trek. Some drove roads feature a sharp bend in the road which could be used for shelter in bad weather, particularly in exposed locations such as hillside or mountain routes.

The Job of the Drover

The drovers were often not the people who had raised the animals. They were paid by the farmers to take stock to market, often over very long distances, which is why the job of a drover was separated from the farming element.

So much a part of life were drovers that they were included in 19th-century vocabularies. Credit: Bridgeman
So much a part of life were drovers that they were included in 19th-century vocabularies. Credit: Bridgeman

Most animals transported long distances were cattle and sheep, but pigs were also moved, as were horses, geese and turkeys. It was the simple requirement to move animals from where they were raised to areas with a great demand for meat.

Read More: Packhorse Bridges: What are They?

Having said that, drovers also moved animals over shorter distances. to village markets and slaughterhouses or just to better grazing areas, depending on the season. The writer Daniel Defoe recorded that 150,000 turkeys were driven from East Anglia to London, a journey which took three months.

Drovers usually worked with a couple of dogs; one man could move between 30 and 50 animals. Sometimes, drovers bandied together to move hundreds of animals simultaneously.

Ox Drove
Ride fast. Travel slowly. This road is called Ox Drove and I have just rode away from the Woodbury Hill that in the medieval period was the biggest hiring fair and market in southern England. Plebs would travel as far as Exeter (in now Devon) and from Winchester, Hampshire

Animals taken by one drover and sold at a market could then be transferred to another area by a different drover. Drovers would collect small numbers or even a single animal from other farms and work for several farmers, amassing a number of animals to take to market. Sometimes, drovers would buy cattle or sheep outright from the farmer, but it was more common for them to work for a fee.

The Demise of Droving

Droving began to fade away in the early 19th century. As the land system altered in the British Isles, agricultural change heralded different farming methods. Common pastures were enclosed into separate fields to which drovers had no access.

This old drovers road is around 20 feet

Stock animals were raised more extensively across the lowland areas of the UK. Cattle were even moved by train once the railways had begun to develop into an extensive countrywide network from the 1840s. Moving large numbers of cattle by ship also contributed to a significant decline in the quantity of stock travelling by road.

Read More: Uncovering the Fascinating Origins of Rural Place Names

The last recorded large-scale droves were at the beginning of the 1900s. There is also some documented evidence that moving stock was coming into conflict with the rise of the motor car. However, an annual Drovers’ Tea in Norwich in 1906 organised by the RSPCA was well attended with 570 drovers.

Curious Facts about Drovers

  • Cattle that were to be moved on rough or stony tracks or, in later years, over metalled roads were sometimes fitted with metal shoes. The shoes would have to be replaced at intervals on the journey depending on how far they had to travel.

  • Drovers had to work out how far they could travel each day and calculate how to arrive at a location with a safe shelter for the animals and preferably an inn for them. If there were no hostelry, then they would sleep in the open with the animals. If there were more than one drover, then they would take it turns staying awake to guard the animals.
drovers’ road
Welsh Road East and Welsh Road West are so called because they are the route of the old drovers’ road through Southam that dates from way back before the Elizabethan era. Photo courtesy of the photographic archive held in the Southam Heritage Collection.
  • In his story ‘The Two Drovers’, Sir Walter Scott describes drovers as topsmen.
  • Avoiding highways with other traffic and turnpikes was the art of a good drover, particularly the turnpike fee.
  • Driving valuable stock long distances was hard and responsible work but was generally well remunerated.

Black Pudding

  • In the same story, Sir Walter Scott describes a Highland drover having only a few handfuls of oatmeal and two or three onions for sustenance. The oatmeal could be boiled with water or whisky to make porridge. Sometimes the drovers would take some blood from one of the cattle and mix that with the oatmeal to make a black pudding.
Drover's Road near Latteridge, South Gloucestershire, England.
Drover’s Road near Latteridge, South Gloucestershire, England.
  • Dishonest drovers with large herds were not averse to adding in the odd extra animal from random farms passed along the journey.

  • Drovers could carry large amounts of money on their return journey once their animals had been sold. This made them vulnerable to roadside thieves. The Black Ox Bank was established in Llandovery, Wales, by a drover called David Jones in 1799 to protect the proceeds of local drovers. This bank remained in place until 1909, when Lloyds Bank bought it.
Drovers map of routes from Wales to the markets in London
Drovers map of routes from Wales to the markets in London
  • To protect their feet, pigs wore knitted socks with leather soles. Turkeys had their feet tarred, geese wore leather boots, and cows were fitted with moon-shaped iron shoes.


  • Whilst the feet of the livestock were prepared, the animals could sort out the hierarchy in the group. When the journey began, the dominant animals would lead the way.
  • Droving was a noisy business. Aside from the sounds of the animals, the drovers would call out as they approached a farm or other livestock to warn the farmer to get their stock out of the way of the procession.
Drovers road
A great example of a ‘longacre’. These big wide verges are a great relic from the days of the drover. It is areas like these that the drover and his teams would rest up the cattle/sheep to graze while on they way to market.
  • As animals could not be driven on Sundays, drovers often began their journeys again shortly after midnight on Sunday night.
  • Collies seem to be the most prevalent breed of dog chosen to assist the drovers. In Wales, Corgis were preferred, small enough to get out of the way of kicking cattle but large enough to keep up with the moving group.


  • Drovers had to be approved and licensed, demonstrating that they were of good character and over the age of 30. Licenses were issued annually and lasted for three years. Drovers’ dogs were also licensed.
  • Drovers were also entrusted to carry news, messages, important documents and even money for other people.

  • Trees were used along a route as signposts, mostly evergreens and usually laurel, holly or Scots pine. In Hampshire, they used yew. A clump of evergreens could mark a significant location like a crossroads or waterhole, or a field for grazing stock overnight
  • The peak seasons for moving livestock were spring and autumn.
drovers roads
The clues are all around us, this is Boys Hill Drove
  • Highwaymen and muggers were an occupational hazard for the drover, who often carried high-value gold sovereigns on their return journeys. Drovers would commonly sew the money into their clothing for protection.
  • Inns with names like ‘Lock and Key’ indicated that they would accept money for safekeeping. There was a pub with this name at Smithfield Market in London.

Identifying Drove Roads – The Clue is in the Name

In certain parts of the British Isles, drove roads are easy to spot because they are called the Drove, Drove Lane or Drove Road. There may even be a tell-tale pub along the way, the Drovers’ Arms.

Drovers inn
Located at the top of beautiful Loch Lomond on the A82 to Crianlarich, you’ll find the historic Drovers Inn. This old inn used by the Highland drovers who used to drive their cattle down the side of Loch Lomond to the markets.

These hostelries where men and animals could rest and were not all found in rural locations. There was a Drovers Arms owned by Bass Brewery in Birmingham until 1973, when it was closed as part of a redevelopment project.

Other names which may provide a clue include:-

  • Bullock, Cow or Ox Lane
  • Drift Road – drift is an old word for drove
  • Longacre – the wide verges on either side of the drove route often had this name
  • Halfpenny Green, often connected to a Halfpenny Inn, where the animals could rest overnight at the cost of half a penny
  • Little London – either an area, lane or an entire village, reflecting how many animals were driven vast distances to London
  • Haverfordwest – the ford used by heifers

However, many drove roads have either become walking tracks, bridleways or green lanes, with some disappearing altogether. Those that have been converted into tarmac surfaces are usually single-carriageway roads. They can sometimes still be identified by their unusually broad verges, suggesting the drove’s original width.

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