Sheep Folding

Sheep folding - a field of grazing sheep at Chiltern Open Air Museum

What is sheep folding?

Farmers used to keep sheep in movable temporary pens called folds. Sheep folding is the process of moving sheep between temporary pens called folds. This was a common method used on poor soils, like those found in the Chilterns.

The sheep folding process

It worked like this:

Farmers grew a forage crop like turnips. These are easy to grow in poor soils and planted for sheep to eat.

Sheep are folded across to eat the crop. The sheep tread the ground and leave lots of useful manure everywhere, revitalising the soil.

The ground is then fit to produce a good quality grain crop like oats for people to eat.

And the cycle is repeated.

sheep folding at Chiltern Open Air Museum. A lady tying hurdles together in a field.

Before sheep folding

Before sheep folding, leaving the land to rest or fallow for a year or two had been the only way to improve soil enough to grow grain crops. Using the folding system, farmers were able to produce lamb, mutton and wool while letting the land rest so that it would be ready to grow valuable crops the following season.

Sheep folding was popular from the late 1700s to the early 1900s, but the system was hard work. Hundreds of hurdles needed moving or pitching every day. Farmers stopped sheep folding when fertilisers became cheaply available.

Find out more about lambing folds

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