Stop! Cows and sheep crossing

PUBLISHED: 12:20 28 September 2006 | UPDATED: 12:02 04 May 2010

I HAVE written in the past about turkeys at Christmas that were taken all the way to London on foot, with tar on their feet or little cloth boots for protection. The only way to move any livestock in centuries past was on the hoof. The arrival of the rai

I HAVE written in the past about turkeys at Christmas that were taken all the way to London on foot, with tar on their feet or little cloth boots for protection. The only way to move any livestock in centuries past was on the hoof.

The arrival of the railways in the 19th century meant that animals could be moved long distances, but this form of transport came at a cost. For the vast majority of landowners the cheaper alternative was the only option.

Until the arrival of the motorcar, people living in towns were just as used to animals in their streets as those living in the country. Horses, carriages and horse drawn carts transported people and goods, making the roads through towns busy, dirty and smelly. In addition, farmers moving livestock from one grazing common to another took the most direct route, through the town.

This is true of Ely, and from November 1845 cattle, sheep and pigs were auctioned in the city when the Cattle Market opened. Situated behind the White Hart, in the area which is now Waitrose, the animals were driven into town for market day and presumably driven back out again when sold by the auctioneers Frank Grain and later George Comins. The last livestock sale took place in Ely in 1981.

Flocks of sheep being driven along the local droves were also a common site. In early spring, the sheep were driven across the fields of winter wheat, cropping the fields as they went. This practice was called 'the royal hoof' and encouraged a stronger second growth as well as manuring the fields en-route.

Large flocks of sheep would need a full-time shepherd to manage the stock. But smallholders kept just a handful of sheep and these would graze on the washes and riverbanks in the Fens, providing the farmers with free natural pastures. The rivers could also be used to wash the sheep before shearing. This afforded the smallholder and his family with an easy, but above all cheap, way of providing them with food and clothing.

If only a few cattle were kept, there was no point in owning your own bull. One bull would serve a wide area and would travel from farm to farm led by a rope attached to a ring through its nose.

Pigs were another essential part of a small-holder's household economy. Self-sufficiency for these farmers was the key word. Pigs could be bred and the piglets sold at market for much needed revenue. They were cheap to feed on household leftovers, buttermilk and cooked poor potatoes. A pig could also be killed for home consumption. The meat could be salted down and smoked for the winter months and pork cheese was a local delicacy.

These days, livestock walking through our towns and villages is unheard of and even the noise of hens, particularly roosters, has to be kept under control. The only animals using the roads are horses and unless you ride out in Newmarket, where the horse comes first, horse riders have to be very careful and selective where to ride. To think the first car arrived in Ely in 1904, those were the days for those of us who ride.

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