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Drovers' road

Drovers' road

A drovers' road, drove [road] or droveway is a route for droving livestock on foot from one place to another, such as to market or between summer and winter pasture (see transhumance).[1] Many drovers' roads were ancient routes of unknown age; others are known to date back to medieval or more recent times.[2]


Drovers' roads are often wider than other roads, able to accommodate large herds or flocks. Packhorse ways were quite narrow as the horses moved in single file, whereas drove roads were at least 40 feet (12 m) and up to 90 feet (27 m) wide.[3] In the United Kingdom, where many original drovers' roads have been converted into single carriageway metalled roads, unusually wide verges often give an indication of the road's origin. In Wales, the start of many droveways, drovers' roads are often recognisable by being deeply set into the countryside, with high earth walls or hedges. The most characteristic feature of these roads is the occasional dog-leg turn in the road, which provided cover for animals and men in severe rain or snow. Some drovers' roads crossed mountains. It is likely that the so-called Roman Steps in the Rhinogydd in Wales is an example of a drove road.


Drovers (those droving or driving livestock) accompanied their livestock either on foot or on horseback, travelling substantial distances. Rural England, Wales and Scotland are crossed by numerous drove roads that were used for this trade, many of which are now no more than tracks, and some lost altogether. The word "drover" is used for those engaged in long distance trade – distances which could cover much of the length of Britain or other world regions where droving was used – while "driver" was used for those taking cattle to local markets. Drovers used dogs to help control the stock, and these would sometimes be sent home alone after a drove, retracing their outward route and stopping at the same places; the drover would pay for their food in advance on the outward journey.

Controlling herds of three or four hundred animals on narrow roads, keeping them healthy, and feeding them en route over several weeks or months required expertise and authority. There was licensing under the legislation, introduced in 1563, intended to control '"badgers" of grain and drovers of cattle, although it seems to have been less rigorously applied to drovers. They were also exempted from the Disarming Acts of 1716 and 1748, which were passed after Jacobite risings. They were not necessarily literate but were respected as experts in their trade.

Early history

Some form of drovers' roads existed in Romano-British times and certainly throughout the Early Middle Ages. For example, the old east-west drovers' road connecting the Dorset/Exeter region with London and thence Suffolk is along a similar alignment to the Roman road of the same route. Many lengths of the Welsh Road through the English Midlands coincide with manorial or parish boundaries, suggesting that it predates them and probably had pre-Roman origins as an ancient trackway.[4]

Medieval drovers' roads

In Great Britain, Drove as a placename can be traced to the early 13th century, and there are records of cattle driven from Wales to London and sheep from Lincolnshire to York in the early 14th century. Drovers from Scotland were licensed in 1359 to drive stock through England.[5] These may be simply the earliest records of a more ancient trade. There is increasing evidence for large-scale cattle-rearing in Bronze Age and Iron Age Britain. Cattle and sheep were part of the Romano-British economy. By the Anglo-Saxon period there was long distance movement of cattle, including stolen stock.

What is certain is that during the medieval period there was a substantial trade in cattle out of Wales into England, to which cattle from Ireland were added. These were driven across Somerset, Wiltshire[6] and Berkshire to feed the growing population of London. The drovers made use of ancient ridgeways, including the Ridgeway over the Berkshire Downs and ridgeways still known as the Old Shaftesbury Drove and the Ox Drove leading from Shaftesbury and Blandford to Salisbury.[7]

Medieval drovers' roads were wide by medieval standards, 20 metres across, with wide grazing verges on either side, the "long acre".[8]

In medieval Spain the existence of migratory flocks on the largest scale, which were carefully organised through the system of the Mesta gave rise to orderly drovers' roads, called cabañeras in Aragon, carreradas in Catalonia, azadores reales, emphasising royal patronage, in Valencia, and most famous of all, cañadas, including three major cañadas reales, in Castile.[9] Along these grazing trackways sheep travelled for distances of 350 to 450 miles, to the summer pasturages of the north, around León, Soria, Cuenca and Segovia, from the middle of April, and returning to winter pasturage in La Mancha, Estremadura, Alcántara and the lowlands of Andalusia.

In Languedoc the transhumance pathways, more restricted by agriculture and orchards and less organized than those of Iberia, were the drailles that fed into the main carraïres, which led from coastal plains to summer mountain pastures. They are documented from the 13th century and were organized in the 16th century by Statuts de la transhumance.[10] In some areas, such as on Mont Lozère, the drailles were marked by montjoies (standing stones).[11]

In the Kingdom of Naples, patterns of transhumance established in Late Antiquity were codified by Frederick II Hohenstaufen, but the arrival of rulers of Aragon in the 15th century saw the organization of sheepways, tratturi delle pecore on the Aragonese model, and pastoralists were given privileges and restrictions, collectively termed the dogana, that were reminiscent of those of the Mesta. This established drovers' roads that continued without substantial change into the age of the railroad.[12]

17th century onwards

By the 17th century Daniel Defoe described Smithfield, in London, as the greatest meat market in the world. In 1855 it was moved to the outskirts of the city, to a site known as the Caledonian Market on Caledonian Road, Islington, to avoid the problems of large numbers of stock being driven through the streets. Cattle were also driven to other major cities, to areas of intermediate grazing to be fattened for market, and to markets and fairs. Many of the greatest stock fairs, such as Tan Hill, Yarnbury and White Sheet in Wiltshire, were held on ancient sites to which cattle were driven for centuries, perhaps since prehistoric times.

Geese, turkeys, pigs, and horses were also driven to markets, and in large quantities to London. Cattle were fitted with iron shoes, geese were fitted with boots to protect their feet, and the feet of turkeys were tarred and sanded.[13] Daniel Defoe recorded that 150,000 turkeys were driven from East Anglia to London each year, the journey taking three months to complete.[13] There is a record of a wager in 1740 on whether geese or turkeys would travel faster – the winner being the geese which could graze as they moved, while the turkeys had to stop to be fed.

The regularity of the Welsh trade across Wiltshire is proved by an inscription in Welsh on a cottage at Stockbridge, still visible in the twentieth century: "Satisfactory hay, sweet pasture, good ale and a comfortable bed".

Much of the trade in cattle from Wales to London was done on letters of credit. In 1706 the law was changed specifically to prevent drovers escaping their debts by declaring themselves bankrupt. The trade promoted the development of banking systems in both London and Wales. One drover set up his own Black Ox Bank in Llandovery in 1799,[3] which survived until 1909 when it was taken over by Lloyds Bank.

Long acre

The long acre is a traditional term for wide grassy road verges. In some places, such as Australia, New Zealand,[14] and parts of the British Isles,[15] rural roads are often separated from adjoining paddocks and fields by both a hedge or fence and a wide grass verge. Rather than leaving this verge fallow, farmers often tether livestock on it to use pasture feed (in the form of the grass) that would otherwise be wasted. Historically, the long acre was also grazed by herds or flocks moving from place to place, either on long journeys, or from one small local field to another. The long acre provided an important resource for such flocks and herds, perhaps forming a significant part of a small farmer's pasture. In Australia, the most common method of keeping grazing stock off a road is by the use of a portable electric fence, visible to the stock and to passing travellers as a single white tape. The use of the long acre as pasture has sometimes become formalised. For example, in parts of England, some have been registered as common land.

The related term long paddock is occasionally encountered in Australia with the same meaning, although the term also has a more specific historical meaning, relating to the cross-country droving of cattle between Queensland and New South Wales along what is now the route of the Cobb Highway.[16]

Decline of droving

Droving declined during the nineteenth century, through a combination of agricultural change, the introduction of railway transport from the 1840s, cattle disease, and more intensive use of the countryside through which the stock had passed for hundreds of years. For example, importation of cattle from Donaghadee in Ireland to Portpatrick, which would then be driven through Wigtownshire, had reached 20,000 per year in 1812, but fell to 1,080 in 1832, because they came by steamer directly to ports at Liverpool and Glasgow instead.[17]

The last recorded large-scale cattle drove across Wales was in 1870,[18] and of sheep in 1900, although droving briefly revived during the rail strike of 1912. In Scotland, the last drove over the Corrieyairack Pass is believed to have taken place in 1906.[18] Corrieyairack Pass had also been used by droves of cattle and sheep from the Isle of Skye; the last drove from Skye to use the pass occurred "in the closing years of the 19th century".[19]

North America and South America

Cattle drives in North America by American cowboys and South American cattle drivers are similar in nature, although distances were often greater; like most routes they started out by following a general geographic route before becoming roadways.

See also

  • Causey Mounth

  • Drover (Australian)

  • Esker Riada

  • Slíghe Chualann

  • Stock routes - roads specified for stock movement in Australia


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