The drovers in the Brecon Beacons

The sight of animals being transported around the country is very familiar to many of us in Wales. Modern machinery and vehicles make it a relatively easy task. For our ancestors, it was a very different matter.

Livestock used to be driven over long distances on foot by men called drovers. The highly desirable Welsh black cattle were commonly transported to the markets and fairs of England in this way. Sheep, pigs, geese and oxen would be also led to market, wearing special shoes to protect their feet on their long journey.

The Brecon Beacons droving routes

The Brecon Beacons National Park has a rich droving history as it is on one of the main routes running from west to east across the country. A number of drovers’ pubs and inns were situated along these well trodden routes, providing rest and food for the men and their animals.

Droving such large herds, often hundreds strong, was not without its difficulties. The animals had to be in top condition when they arrived at market so that they would fetch the best possible price.

The drovers needed a deep understanding of their animals so that they did not lead them too quickly, and made sure they had plenty of food and rest. However, the drovers still had to keep a pace of 15 to 20 miles a day so that they reached their destination on time.

Man and dog, working in partnership

The drovers often used dogs to assist them. A variety of breeds were used depending on the drovers’ preferences and the size of the herd they were in charge of.

Welsh corgis were often chosen. They were ideal because they were quick and agile enough to keep the animals on the road, whilst being small enough to avoid being kicked.

Once the drove was over, the dogs would often run home ahead of the owner, stopping at the same pubs and inns as they had on the way. When a drover’s wife welcomed the dog home, she knew to expect her husband in a day or so.

Carrying cash, delivering the news

As well as being responsible for hundreds of animals, Drovers were very often entrusted with large sums of money to take to London to pay rents owed to landlords and other financial transactions not related to livestock trade. This growing trade with London led to a number of drovers’ banks being set up.

The Black Ox Bank in Llandovery, founded in 1799 had a black ox on its notes to symbolise its links with the drovers. Lloyds Bank in the centre of Brecon stands on the site of the Brecon Old Bank established in 1778, which financed many Drovers.

In our modern world it’s easy to keep up with the news through television and the internet. At the time of the drovers however, communications between rural Wales and the rest of the world was limited. The drovers played an important part in the passing on of news of world affairs to the Welsh community. News of current events and the latest fashions were eagerly awaited. It is thought that Wales learnt of the Battle of Waterloo and the defeat of Napoleon through the drovers.

An honourable trade

Because of the responsibilities associated with their role, possible Drovers were carefully vetted. Only men, who owned a house, were married and above the age of 30 could apply. Once successful, they were issued a licence. The livelihood of many farmers depended on their honesty and skill.

Droving slowly died out with the coming of the railways and better transport. It had been a part of rural life for many hundreds of years. As well as transporting animals to the markets and fairs of England, the drovers played a vital role in forging an important economic and cultural link between Wales and the rest of the world.

This short history of droving was kindly provided by Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery.