Path with trees at the back of University campus

They are required to know perfectly the drove-roads, which lie over the wildest tracks of the country, and to avoid as much as possible the highways, which distress the feet of the bullocks, and the turnpikes, which annoy the spirit of the drover; whereas on the broad green or grey track, which leads across the pathless moor, the herd not only move at ease and without taxation, but, if they mind their business, may pick up a mouthful of good by the way.

Walter Scott ‘The Two Drovers’ Chronicles of the Canongate (1827)

At the back of our University there is a worn-down, paved path. Many staff and students take it as a rough and ready shortcut from campus into the local town, or to catch a bus, and rarely give it a second thought, but it is one of many local ‘pack-horse’ routes that offer us a glimpse into the past. That glimpse is not only into a human past, but also into the history of the other animals that shared it with us and the knowledge that they embodied. The sandstone flags that the path is made of (which start after a short section of resurfaced paving), and the stone and hedge banks that rise up around it, are the shaped and worn evidence of the repeated passage of hooves and animal bodies that once criss-crossed the area carrying packs of coal and goods into Leeds: a comms system that relied on a long-established and shared human-animal expertise. They reveal a landscape and environment made up of inter-connected human and non-human animal histories.

Pack-horse routes took their users up and down Moorland and valley, in and out of the Dales to town, over pony-sized bridges and well-worn old tracks. Often paved by large stone flags over soft ground, the stones were worn down by the steady passage of hooves. Consisting of 20-40 horses with a driver and two helpers, each busy pack-horse train was led by a pony with its own bell, in order that two pack trains could avoid each other and the ponies, listening for ‘their’ bell, would stay together. They carried panniers or pulled sledges of everything from corn to coal, lead and iron ore, to salt, charcoal and wool. This traffic of meandering livestock was far from isolated; all these paths, pack routes and tracks linked to the greater road networks on which were carried all the products not just of agriculture itself, but also of the necessary ancillary trades that supported farming and other industries: goods like salt. Before refrigeration became widely available at the end of the nineteenth century, salt was a vital resource that (alongside smoking) allowed meat storage and transport, and was therefore used to provide staple salted bacon and pork through much of the nineteenth century.1

Aside from the pack-horse routes and salt roads, until the mid-nineteenth century at least, livestock were driven (i.e. walked) along well-worn networked paths, tracks, ‘streets’, drove roads and ‘gates’, by drovers. The traces of many old (some very ancient) tracks can, like the pack-horse routes, still be seen in the upland long-distance walks, green roads and bridle paths now used for leisure, that were left behind in Highland Scotland, in the Lake District, the Pennines and Yorkshire Dales. The higher-demand routes (be they track-, road-, water-, or rail-ways) enlarged and surfaced for carts and carriages and therefore often less visible today, shifted to make way for the enclosure of land for farming, to catch up newly-emerging centres of population, or were built into the bottoms of the valleys.

All of these connections were made by human and (thousands of) non-human animals, as criss-crossing pathways occasionally isolated yet direct, sometimes travelling along riverbanks, across moorland, through passes, and along old Roman roads, and were used over hundreds of years. Occasionally the old routes have piqued our historical interest and have generated archaeological, topographical and geographical studies of regional and local networks.2 But, despite the emergence of interest in Continental transhumance in historical, conservation and ecological studies in the 1980s, the livestock (also draught and packhorse) trails that connected and shaped the British landscape, have languished largely unremarked in the literature. And, as Victorianists, we have not yet considered the direct physical effects of non-human animals on the land, and the potential ability to see the traces of their preferences.

On the higher ground (Uplands, Downs and Highlands) of England, Wales and Scotland you might still find the drovers’ roads, and the inns/ruins of inns used on the longest routes; persisting into the nineteenth century the Victorians remained literally connected by as well as to the distant past. Often visible because of their wide verges, flora and fauna that spread as livestock trod carefully over moorland, moving off of hard surfaces that hurt their feet, and took opportunities in passing to graze and to drop dung. Periodically, stock and men paused to rest, graze to greater satisfaction and drink at ‘standings’, and at the end stock were gathered together to be fed up pre-sale at fairs and markets. The Victorian cultural record captures them. Walter Scott’s story ‘The Two Drovers’ (1827) for instance represented the ways that stock and drovers worked together to find comfortable and sure footing, efficient and economic routes with grazing and water, and so together created patterns in the land and livestock economy that now remain as visible co-created traces of the past. This pattern of animal movement in Britain was different to that of the classic example of transhumance on the Iberian Peninsula (where husbandry responded to the migratory habits of merino sheep, which came to be moved seasonally from upland to lowland pasture along equally well-established routes).3 But, there is still an equally long-duree story to be told here. Because the specific market dynamics, interrelationships and preferred stock varied by demand, available feed, also (reportedly) by topography and prevailing climate (to which stock such as sheep and cattle were said to be sensitive4), livestock production in Britain encompassed moving animals within a complex economic and geographic landscape over the course of centuries. And, as with Continental animal movement Spring-Summer-Winter, this traffic shaped and kept shaping the land that the non-human animals trod.

After the rise in the eighteenth century of ‘improving’ farmers, (who sought to maximise profit through the marketisation of farming by enclosing grazing land and fattening stock) animals, if not butchered in-situ went to the nearest market town in order not to lose too much ‘condition’. Some to markets that ran once or twice a week, others to larger towns that had monthly fat-stock or cattle markets, or to city livestock markets. There, they went for meat to butchers who supplied local demand, or (later) to dealers who sold the surplus on to the cities via rail, steam packet or coastal shipping. But, even with the coming of waterway and railway, many of those animals were still moved on foot. Lean stock continued to be driven along roads to specialist, seasonal meetings or sales, e.g. cattle, horse or sheep fairs (which drew in more than cattle, horses or sheep), to be sold for breeding or fattening. The October sheep fair in Malham, North Yorkshire, from the eighteenth-century onwards, became a big cattle fair that attracted drovers from Scotland, as well as the immediate county. The cattle drovers going from Scotland to Malham often travelled for weeks at a time with several hundred head of cattle over the Cheviots and the edges of the intervening uplands across what are now several large areas of designated National Parkland.5 This worked because the drovers could give the stock a chance to feed, water and rest (at ‘standings’) on the moors or by the roadside as they travelled, either via well-known freely-available/paid-for common-land grazing,6 or on enclosed land that they could pay to use short-term for the purpose. And, it was only from the mid-nineteenth century that the practice gradually came to an end, in part due to the rise of those ‘Improving’ farmers who had emerged the century before and became dominant in the so-called Victorian ‘Golden Age’ of mid-century “High Farming”.

This was partly about the net value of the railways in preserving the weight of high-quality stock in transit, despite the fees.7 Though the drovers re-routed over the hills, it was also down to the toll-based turnpikes that charged per head that increasingly dominated the low roads, and the large estate owners who started to charge drovers more/more often for grazing rights, or even to remove those rights altogether as they sought to do away with large transient herds traversing their estates as they enclosed more land and devoted more of it to arable management and improved pastures. And, finally, as new weightier breeds that had less stamina started to dominate, so the large herds of cattle walking over great distances declined.8 But, the speed of change varied, and sheep were still driven on and off Moorland and Fell to go to summer grazing, to shepherds’ meets, for lambing and shearing through the old routes by human and dog in the Dales, the Lakes, the Welsh Highlands (connecting to the meat trade in the English Midlands) and Scottish Highlands.9 Nor did the movement of non-human animals necessarily cease altogether – even with motor transport.10

Because the old roads remained in use through most of the nineteenth century, animals working with human drovers, flock masters, graziers and carters walked, continued to wear down and mark the made and unmade tracks that connected farms, villages, and town and country. Through stamina, the need for food and water, their bodies determined the places that their human drivers would stop to rest (hence the demand for inns). The stock’s physical labour made the paths that linked production and sale and their bodies shaped the land used at market and fair. That evidence, the material traces in the land of the entangled histories of human and non-human animal is still available to be, and needs to be, read.




Professor Karen Sayer is Professor of Social and Cultural History at Leeds Trinity University, and Co-Director of the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies. 



1 Salt was used widely to store the slaughtered meat on the farm and in the villages. Raistrick notes that many very old, now invisible, green roads can be traced in large part via place names that mention salt, so vital as a preservative, and that the old salt routes still underlie many modern roads, because it was moved in bulk over such long distances e.g. from Cheshire and Lancashire through Yorkshire. Arthur Raistrick, Green Tracks on the Pennines (The Dalesman Publishing Company, Clapham, Lancaster, 1962), p. 10

2 Arthur Raistrick, Green Tracks on the Pennines (The Dalesman Publishing Company, Clapham, Lancaster, 1962); K. J. Bonser, The Drovers: who they were and how they went; an epic of the English countryside (Macmillan, London and Basingstoke, 1970); J D Marshall, Old Lakeland: some Cumbrian Social History (David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1971), pp. 76-96; C. S. Hallas, ‘On the Hoof: Road Transport in the Yorkshire Dales 1750-1900’, Journal of Transport History, 17(1), (1996), 20-42, p. 20; D. Winterbottom, ‘on the Road: traffic and travellers’ in A. Crosby (ed), Leading the Way: A History of Lancashire’s Roads (Lancashire County Books, Preston, 1998), pp. 105-109; G. Sheeran, ‘Seen on the Packhorse Tracks, South Pennine Packhorse Trails Trust’ Journal of Transport History 27, no. 1 (March 2006), 162-163 (accessed May 17, 2018), p. 162; Lowdon, Richard Edward, To Travel by Older Ways: a historical-cultural geography of droving in Scotland (Unpublished thesis University of Glasgow, 2014)

3 M., Ruiz, and J.P. Ruiz, ‘Ecological history of transhumance in Spain’ Biological Conservation 37, (January 1, 1986), 73-86.

4 Rebecca J. H. Woods, The Herds Shot Round the World: native breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2017), pp. 25-77

5 It is c. 130 Miles from the Cheviots to Malham in North Yorkshire via what is now called the Pennine Way.

6 Grazing on common land was controlled via Manor courts, which enforced by-laws that were often used to prevent overgrazing by designating specific pastureland for cattle, sheep or horses: cow commons, sheep pasture, horse closes.

7 R H Rew, ‘Farmers and the Railway Rates’ Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England (1895) Vol VI, pp. 288-308

8 R. Perren, The Meat Trade in Britain, 1840-1914, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, Henley and Boston, 1978), pp. 1, 16-17.

9 Bonser, pp. 225-29; Raistrick, p. 10; Perren, pp. 16-17; R. J. Colyer, ‘Some Welsh Breeds of Cattle in the Nineteenth Century’, Agricultural History Review 1974 22.1, pp. 1-17; NB John Broad points out that drovers were traders in their own right, selling animals as they travelled, see J. Broad ‘ A ‘Little London’ Near You?’ Rural History Today, Issue 33, August 2017

10 Image of four-horse team ‘assist[ing] a motor wagon on to the road near Kendal in 1940’, W. R Mitchell, (ed), Life in the Lake District: pictorial memories of a Bygone Age (The Dalesman Publishing Co., Clapham, 1980), p. 12; Bonser, pp. 228-29.

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