Meet the dry-stone wallers who restored a 300-year-old sheep pen in Cumbria

Craftsmen Steven Allen and Trevor Stamper hope restored this historic sheepfold as part of a wider campaign to help support and promote common-land grazing

Amid the biting wind and freezing rain of winter, two dry-stone wallers have completed the restoration of a 300-year-old sheep pen on the common land of Brant Fell in the Howgills, Cumbria, within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. ‘Being a farmer’s son, with sheep on this moor back in the day, I was delighted to be able to rebuild this historic sheep pen,’ says master craftsman Steven Allen of Tebay, who worked together with Trevor Stamper from Shap. ‘I hope the commoners use it for many years to come.’

Commoning (where farmers exercise rights over land that is privately owned for grazing and to gather resources such as firewood) has been going on in this country since 1215 and was initially instituted to boost poor rural communities. Sheep (and sometimes cattle, pigs or horses) graze without fencing, knowing which patch (or ‘heft’ or ‘lear’, depending where in England you are) is theirs through generational flock memory.

The restoration of this historic sheep pen is part of the Our Upland Commons Project. Credit: Rob Fraser

‘Historic sheepfolds are used by commoners today to separate out hefted sheep back to individual farms, to treat sheep and for gathers. Gathers are when multiple commoners and their dogs work together to guide sheep off the fell for tupping, shearing and lambing throughout the year,’ explains project officer Claire Braeburn.

At one time, about half of Britain was common land, but, from the 16th century, commoners were excluded for the sake of agriculture; now, only 3% of England is common land, including stretches of Dartmoor, the Lake District and the Shropshire Hills.

Recommended videos for you

The Foundation for Common Land recognises that, with the withdrawal of funding and environmental targets, commoners, whose very existence is beneficial to wildlife and delicate upland ecosystems, not to mention our historic landscape, need support. As such, this restoration is part of Our Common Cause: Our Upland Commons, a £3 million project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which is honing in on 12 areas of common land totalling 18,000 hectares (44,479 acres) and also providing assistance in the form of, for example, flood management, education and support to farmers taking part in the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme.