November 29, 2010

Northumberland sheep husbandry - shelters, stells and keb hooses

By Donald Clegg

2010 blizzard at Emblehope.
Photo by Helen Brown while helping to get the flock to lower ground.

(Helen Brown copyright)

Sheep shelters
All over the moors and fells of the North of England and southern Scotland, there are strange dry-stone structures, now abandoned , moss-covered and ruinous in the most part, which have intrigued visitors to this Border region for decades as they explore its magic landscape.

Some of these structures are simply short runs of dry-stone wall, some straight, some curved or ‘L’ shaped and some more complicated in the form of a cross. Seldom more than 20 yards long in any direction, they would seem to serve no practical purpose, being very often in the ‘middle of nowhere’, and far from human habitation.

Their isolation gives us the first clue to their use. Until fairly recently, before thousands of acres of our Border uplands were given over to forestry, sheep and sheep farming dominated the heathery and grassy slopes of the Cheviots in Northumberland, the Lakeland fells and the Scottish lowlands.

The farm house was usually situated in the lower valley and the shepherds’ cottages in the upper reaches or ’hopes’. Hence names like Whickhope, Hedgehope, Blakhope or Ramshope, etc. The shepherds worked largely unsupervised and in isolation from the boss for weeks at a time and met together only at the seasonal ‘gatherings’ for dipping, clipping, dosing, spaening (weaning) lambs and taking then or draught (aged) yowes to the mart to be sold on.

During winter, on these high exposed fells, heavy snowfalls would force the sheep to seek shelter in any slack or hollow that they could find. As a result, many would become buried – sometimes for days or even weeks, before the shepherd could locate them and dig them out.

This is where these stone wall shelters came in. They were built in specific locations so that in severe weather, they were the preferred rendezvous points for storm-lashed sheep. If they became buried behind their shelter wall, at least the heord (shepherd) knew where to look first.

Most walls were placed to offer shelter from the prevailing Westerly winds but some, in crescent or cross shape, provided shelter from winds and weather coming from almost any direction. Long since sheep were supplanted by conifers, many a weary walker has been grateful for the respite from the elements offered by these long-neglected walls.


2010 blizzard at Ottercops.
Photo by Helen Brown while helping to get the flock to lower ground.

(Helen Brown copyright)

Stells are almost as common as stone wall shelters. According to Wikipedia, the word ‘stell’ simply means ‘a pen for enclosing animals’, but doesn’t explain where the word comes from. For countless years it has been, and still is in common use throughout the Border regions of Scotland and England, and I suspect it is of Scandinavian or Norse origin, though I haven’t been able to verify this – perhaps you can.

By and large, stells are circular, perhaps 30 feet (10m) in diameter and the walls are 4 feet six inches (1.5m) high, built as dry-stone walls without mortar. Other stells are rectangular, in the, in the same proporitoin and material and soem hve one side of the rectangle extended to provide additional shelter for sheep that don't want to go inside.

All these enclosures, whether round or oblong had a narrow entrance closed by a small wooden gate or wicket, or more often by a simple chestnut hurdle.

The purpose of the stell was to provide the shepherd with a place to hold a few sheep at a time when some emergency first aid was needed, treating footrot, removing dags (clarts) from their rear ends, as well as treating them to prevent blowfly maggots (maaks) eating them alive when summer came. Doing these jobs out on the hill saved the time-consuming job of having to drive sheep needing treatment, maybe a couple of miles or more, down to the pens at the farm for treatment.

Although many stell are found on the higher slopes of the fells, most of them are built near a burn, partly because it's useful to have ready access to water for mixing medicines and potions, but also a burnside location is likely to be less exposed than higher up on the hill.

In winter, the stell could be used as a convenient store for a few day's supply of hay, avoiding the daily journeys of carrying hay from the farm for the sheep out on the hill. In the days before motor bikes, hay had to be carried on the shepherd's back, pony or sledge.

So stells were multi-purpose structures - providing shelter, administering first aid, holding sick sheep till they recovered to list just a few. In this day and age we can add emergency shelter for lost hill walkers where they can be easily found.

Keb Hoose

Keb hoose with 'the Beacon' hill in the background

I have been unable to discover the origin of the word ‘keb’ but it is a commonly used word in a Border shepherd’s vocabulary even today.

A ewe which has had a still-born lamb is said to have ‘kebbed’, and the dead lamb is referred to as a ‘keb’. You used to hear the term ' a kebbit yowe'. It follows then, that the keb hoose was mainly concerned with dealing with these occasions of lamb mortality out in the field (literally) or, more likely, up on the hill and so the keb hoose’s principal function was to act as an emergency first aid station.

A ewe that has kebbed naturally has lots of milk but has no lamb; whereas there could be ewe with two or more lambs and only enough milk for one. Solution – let the kebbed ewe ‘adopt’ one of the twins or perhaps an orphan lamb that has lost its mother.

Keb Hoose up the Lewis burn

This was often easier said than done as a ewe recognises its own by its scent and will not readily accept a strange lamb and will even butt it repeatedly to prevent it from suckling. To get over this problem the heord would skin the dead lamb, and fit the skin over the orphan to trick the ewe into thinking this it was her own lamb.

Another ploy was to smother the strange lamb with a mixture of oatmeal and milk so that, by the time the ewe had licked it all off she’d convinced herself that this was indeed her own. These tricks usually worked quite readily but, in awkward cases, could take days of patience, interjected with a few well chosen expletives and dire threats to the yowe's life!

The old shepherd's even used to try whisky, but soon realised that it was a terrible waste and it did them more good than the mothering on process.

In more modern times a whole list of fancy deodorants became available to rub on the lamb and up the ewe's nostrils. They worked on ewes that had good mothering instincts, driven by having plenty of milk.
Keb hoose (left) and Shepherd's hut on Hareshaw common

The keb hoose was, and still is, a sturdy, rectangular stone ‘house’, complete with door, small window and either slate or ‘tin’ (corrugated iron) roof. It would measure roughly 12ft x 9ft (3.5m x 2.8m) and was built with mortar between the stones to make it weather proof.

Inside it may have an earth floor or be flagged or cobbled with stones from the nearby burn. In one corner there is often a small fire place and a chimney through the roof – useful for heating up the tar pot for marking a sheep or water to wash a wound or make the herd’s tea.

There would be at least one shelf and even a rough cupboard. Thus the keb hoose was fully equipped to administer first aid to the flock as required, to provide a welcome shelter for the herd in rough weather (and a fire in winter), and act as a useful store place for a wide assortment of shepherding equipment. Quite often it would have so many accumulated ‘essentials’ that there was hardly enough room for the herd!

Among the variety of things stored within its cosy walls you would be likely to find anything from an empty tin of Cooper’s dip to an old clay pipe, from a pair of rusty shears to a milking stool. This list comes from a keb hoose near Saughtree, just over the Scottish Border from Kielder.

It contained several empty buckets, holed and handle- less; a heap of mouldy sacking; a tangle of binder twine; assorted walking sticks, with or without the regulation crook; a tar pot and a collection of stirring sticks; a selection of brands for horn burning; two pairs of rusty shears; a short length of cow chain; a small pile of damp logs, a pail of wet coal, a paraffin tin (empty) and a poker.

Old coats and jackets full of rips and holes, but may yet turn a bit of hill drizzle; a row of bottles on the shelf containing who knows what selection of magic cures, drenches and tonics; a tin of Hilston’s foot rot ointment; an old paring knife that trimmed its last sheep’s foot twenty years ago; a pair of wellies, missing one left boot; a draining spade minus its shank; assorted empty beer bottles; one oilskin legging, ripped, and above the fireplace, a battered tin kettle, a mouldy teacup and a very cracked and tannin encrusted teapot.

The cracked and uneven concrete floor was layered with generations of mud from countless booted feet and drifts of bracken and grass blown under the ill-fitting door, adorned of course with the inevitable horse shoe. The whole place had a wonderful nostalgic whiff of Cooper's dip, disinfectant (Jey's fluid), wet wool, wet dogs, soot and wood smoke that brought back memories of long days of sheep gatherings, of days clipping and dipping, warm ones and wintry ones but most of all happy ones.

General purpose hut at High Green that could be used as a keb hoose

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating picture of a way of life now past.

    There is a suggestion that the word "stell" was taken from the Old English "stellan", meaning to put, place or fix - this would make sense in terms of gathering or putting sheep into a place where the shepherd could readily find them.