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The scale of it


Every spring and autumn during the Golden Age of droving (1700-1850), beasts were on the move – and had been since prehistory.  Pliny the Elder, in AD 80, mentions geese being driven from (what is now) Belgium to Rome, their feet protected by tar and sand.  (For their quills, presumably, not their meat.)

Reason: the cheapest way to move livestock to market, before the age of steam, was by foot.  These ‘droves’ were epic journeys: the route from North Wales to the south-east of England is over 250 miles; the route from Skye nearly 700.  As it was important that the stock ended the journey in good condition, beasts were ‘drifted’ southward at only 12-15 miles a day.  So the Welsh route took three weeks, the Scottish route nearly seven.

In 1800, 200,000 cattle, one and a half million sheep and 150,000 donkeys passed through Smithfield, the London market of last resort.  It has been estimated that 30,000 black cattle came through Herefordshire alone every year in the late 1700's. 

Sheep seemed to thrive on being driven; pigs hated it and needed boots for their trotters on long journeys; cattle from Wales & Scotland tolerated it, even enjoyed it, because of the lush pasture of the Midland valleys en route. Turkeys were slower than geese, because they liked to perch in a tree at night, were hard to bring down in the morning, and didn't eat on the move as geese did. 

The droving seasons were narrow: mid-February till the end of May, then late September to mid-November.  In spring the beasts fed off the new grass; in autumn off roots and the aftermath of the harvest.


The scale of it image 1
The Road to Portree, Skye
The scale of it image 2
A sheep drove