Country Ways

The History of Shepherding Through Time

Shepherding stands as one of the oldest occupations globally, with its presence spanning many regions and serving as a significant component of pastoralist animal husbandry.

A shepherd or sheepherder is an individual who tends, herds, feeds, or guards flocks of sheep. The term ‘shepherd’ originates from Old English sceaphierde (sceap “sheep” + hierde “herder”).


Early History of Shepherding

Shepherding stands as one of the most ancient vocations, its origins going back through the millennia to the very dawn of British agriculture in the Neolithic period. During this transformative era, the early inhabitants of the British Isles began their shift from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence towards a settled agrarian lifestyle.

Sheep sitting around a Neolithic standing stone, Avebury

Central to this transformation was the management of livestock, a task that would come to define much of rural British life. Sheep were amongst the first animals to be domesticated in these islands, valued for their meat, milk, and, significantly, their wool.

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Early Ages

The early ages presented the British Isles as a land rich with expansive tracts of open territory, characterized by its vast swaths of rolling fields and favourable grazing conditions. Such an environment was not only ideal for sheep farming but also important in the development of the distinct pastoral culture that would flourish there.

The abundance and quality of pasture facilitated the emergence of various breeds of sheep, each uniquely adapted to the specific climatic and geographic conditions of the region.

There is archaeological evidence indicating that primitive sheep of the Soay type were kept in Britain by early Neolithic farmers over 4500 years ago.

Consequently, this period also saw the emergence of a dedicated class of workers skilled in the nuanced care and management of sheep—shepherds.

They developed a deep understanding of the land and the seasons, which was essential for the successful rearing and nurturing of their flocks.

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These shepherds employed a range of skills that were passed down through generations, often within the same families. They mastered the arts of breeding, birthing, and the medical care of sheep, and they became adept at crafting tools and clothing from wool.

Moreover, the role of the shepherd was not solely confined to animal husbandry. It also encompassed the stewardship of the countryside, involving the maintenance of hedgerows and grasslands, the management of breeding cycles to ensure the health of the flock, and the protection of sheep from predators and disease.

Medieval Period

By the time of the medieval era, the wool trade in Britain had blossomed into a vital component of the national economy. Wool, esteemed as the “jewel in the realm’s crown,” became a major export commodity, particularly sourced from the sheep-abundant regions of East Anglia and the West Country.

This era marked a golden age for the wool trade, with English wool not merely fulfilling domestic needs but also commanding high demand across the European continent.

Sheep played an important part in day to day medieval life.

During this period, the role of shepherds expanded significantly beyond the simple day-to-day management of their flocks. They were thrust into the heart of an expansive economic network, underpinning the flourishing wool trade that England would come to dominate for centuries.

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The expertise of shepherds in breeding, wool collection, and overall flock management was crucial in maintaining the quality and supply of wool necessary to sustain this growing trade.

Sheep being sheared for their wool. Many a country was built on the trade of sheep.

Medieval Manuscripts

The increased economic importance of wool during the medieval period led to a greater appreciation and formal recognition of the shepherds’ skills and knowledge. Their roles were elaborately described and codified in various medieval manuscripts and legal texts, which detailed not only the responsibilities but also the rights of shepherds.

An agricultural scene from the 14th-century English Luttrell Psalter, with a woman milking sheep and two women carrying vessels on their heads[

Furthermore, the expertise of the medieval shepherd extended into areas we might today associate with agronomy and veterinary science. They were adept at managing the health of their flocks, employing traditional remedies and breeding strategies to enhance wool production and ensure the overall wellbeing of their sheep.

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Their intimate knowledge of the landscape and seasonal variations also enabled them to make informed decisions about grazing patterns, which in turn supported the sustainability of the pastureland and the productivity of their flocks.

The Enclosure Movements

The series of enclosure movements that unfolded across Britain from the 15th through to the 19th century marked an important era in the transformation of its agricultural landscape and had profound effects on the lives of shepherds.

Decaying hedges mark the lines of the straight field boundaries created by the 1768 Parliamentary Act of Enclosure of Boldron Moor, County Durham

These movements involved the division and fencing off of vast tracts of common lands—previously open to all for the grazing of sheep and other livestock—into private plots. The primary intent behind these enclosures was to facilitate more intensive farming practices and to support the raising of sheep on a much larger and more controlled scale.

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Prior to the enclosures, shepherds tended to large flocks that roamed freely across extensive areas of common land, relying on traditional rights and customs that allowed for the shared use of these open spaces.

Good example of an enclosure hedge in planned countryside. Credit: David Lally

The traditional role of the shepherd was thus inherently itinerant, moving with the flocks across the landscape. This semi-nomadic existence required a broad set of skills oriented around the seasonal management of grazing, breeding, and welfare of the animals under their care.

Shepherding Was Curtailed

However, with the gradual implementation of the enclosure acts, this way of life began to wane. As land was enclosed, the free-ranging nature of shepherding was curtailed, and the role of shepherds began to evolve in response to new agricultural demands.

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Shepherds found themselves overseeing smaller, more concentrated flocks within the confined boundaries of enclosed fields. This necessitated a shift towards a more sedentary, intensive form of flock management, where close attention to the health, breeding, and daily needs of the sheep became paramount.

The enclosures required shepherds to develop new skills and adapt their traditional practices. They now needed a deeper understanding of rotational grazing to maintain the health of pastureland confined within fixed boundaries.

A parliamentary enclosure road near Lazonby in Cumbria. The roads were made as straight as possible, and the boundaries much wider than a cart width to reduce the ground damage of driving sheep and cattle. By Doug Sim

Additionally, the closer quarters of enclosed lands meant that diseases could spread more rapidly among livestock, placing greater emphasis on the shepherd’s role in veterinary care and biosecurity within the flock.

This period also saw changes in the social status and economic conditions of shepherds. In the pre-enclosure era, shepherds often enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy and were integral to the communal rural economy.

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However, post-enclosure, their work became more regulated and dependent on the demands of landowners and commercial farming interests. This not only altered their working conditions but also reshaped their social standing within rural communities.

The Industrial Revolution and Beyond

The Industrial Revolution marked a transformative period in British history, fundamentally altering not only the industrial landscape but also agricultural practices across the nation. The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the advent of mechanized farming, which significantly reduced the reliance on manual labour for tasks that had been the mainstay of agricultural life for centuries, including those involved in shepherding.

Machines took over the roles of sowing, reaping, and processing, which indirectly impacted the traditional work of shepherds.

The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the advent of mechanized farming, which significantly reduced the reliance on manual labour.

Despite the sweeping changes brought about by mechanization, the role of the shepherd endured, albeit in an evolved form. Shepherds were compelled to adapt to new agricultural practices and technologies that emerged during this period.

A shepherd and his lamb, circa 1890

Romantic Movement

Their work began to incorporate more scientific approaches to breeding, health management, and the rotational grazing of enclosed lands. The introduction of new breeds of sheep, bred for specific qualities like wool density or meat yield, also required shepherds to become more knowledgeable about genetic traits and breeding techniques.

A scanned image of a Shepherd and his dog.

As the 19th century progressed, the Romantic movement began to take hold, casting the British countryside and its traditional ways of life in a particularly nostalgic light. This cultural shift brought about a renewed interest in the figure of the shepherd, idealized as a symbol of harmony with nature and pastoral simplicity.

Shepherd with sheep by Thomas Sidney Cooper. 19th century British impressionist art.

Literature and art of the era often portrayed shepherds in bucolic settings, surrounded by the tranquillity of lush landscapes, far removed from the smoke and clamor of industrial cities. This portrayal underscored a yearning for an idyllic past and a simpler, more grounded way of life, standing in stark contrast to the rapid industrialization of the time.

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Painters like Thomas Gainsborough and poets such as William Wordsworth celebrated the pastoral life, elevating the shepherd to a status akin to that of a custodian of rural virtues. In their works, shepherds were depicted as solitary figures amidst expansive landscapes, embodying peace, solitude, and a deep connection to the earth.

These artistic depictions not only reflected a romanticized interpretation of shepherding but also influenced public perceptions of rural life.

Shepherd and Sheep’ by Anton Mauve, circa 1880

Furthermore, the later stages of the Industrial Revolution saw shifts in rural economies and demographic changes, as people moved towards urban centers in search of work.

This migration led to significant changes in rural community structures, in which shepherds and other agricultural workers played increasingly important roles as keepers of rural traditions and practices.

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Their continued presence in the countryside helped maintain agricultural continuity and ecological stewardship, ensuring that the knowledge and skills associated with traditional shepherding were not lost amidst the tides of industrial progress and urbanization.

The 20th Century and Modern Times

The 20th century presented numerous challenges and transformations for rural Britain, profoundly affecting the traditional occupation of shepherding. The outbreak of the two World Wars had particularly seismic impacts, affecting agricultural practices and the daily lives of those in rural communities.

Sheepfold in Sullington, March 1934

During these tumultuous times, many shepherds were conscripted into the military, leading to a significant reduction in the number of active shepherds. Additionally, the exigencies of war necessitated a shift in agricultural focus towards crops essential for human consumption, thereby reducing the emphasis on sheep farming.

Sheep in fold at Alscot Park, Preston on Stour. 1930s

This change not only decreased the number of sheep in the countryside but also altered the pastoral landscapes that had long been characteristic of British rural life.

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Traditional Shepherding Practices

The post-war period continued to challenge traditional shepherding practices, particularly with the advent of technological advancements and the introduction of synthetic fibres, which diminished wool’s supremacy in the textile industry.

Farmworkers shearing sheep at Cherington. 1920s

These synthetic alternatives to natural wool were cheaper and easier to produce on a mass scale, leading to a decline in the demand for wool and, consequently, impacting the livelihoods of traditional shepherds.

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Despite these challenges, the latter part of the 20th century witnessed a notable revival in interest towards traditional and sustainable farming practices. This resurgence was driven by a growing awareness of environmental issues and a renewed appreciation for the quality of natural products, including wool.

Back in our sheep shearing days in the 1990s.

Contemporary Shepherding

Modern shepherds began to diversify their roles, increasingly managing flocks not just for wool, but also for meat production and, notably, for conservation grazing purposes.

Conservation grazing has emerged as a pivotal aspect of contemporary shepherding. This practice involves the use of livestock to manage and maintain landscapes in ways that support biodiversity and help sustain various native species.

By carefully managing grazing patterns, shepherds help maintain the health of the land, preventing overgrazing and promoting the growth of a variety of native plant species, which in turn supports a wider range of wildlife.

Sheep advancing.
A flock of sheep crossing the bridge over Waskerley Beck as it enters Tunstall Reservoir

Moreover, modern shepherding has embraced technological innovation, integrating advanced tools such as drones for aerial flock management and sophisticated software for tracking the health and breeding patterns of animals.

These technologies have enabled shepherds to monitor vast areas more efficiently and respond quickly to any signs of distress or disease within their flocks.

Yet, despite these technological advances, the core essence of the shepherd’s role remains strikingly unchanged. Shepherds continue to be the stewards of the land, dedicated to the welfare of their flocks and the ecosystems in which they operate.