Naming the sheepfolds

Before covering some of the history of the sheepfolds, it's worth looking at the naming of them. The welsh word for a sheepfold is Corlan, but around the northern Carneddau, farmers more generally use the term Buarth. This is nothing new, and it was the prevalent word in the area for describing a sheepfold in the mid nineteenth century. Thus many of the sheepfolds on the Carneddau are called Buarth ABC. Usually the name refers to the location, such as Buarth Mawr y Braich in Cwm Caseg, which is just below Braich y Llyngwn on Yr Elen. Others have been called Buarth Newydd (the new sheepfold) or Corlan Hen (the old sheepfold). How these names were acquired is often unknown. Most farmers know the names of the sheepfolds in their particular area, but of course once the sheepfolds stop being used so their names get lost as well. 

Hafod & Hendre - farming pre the eighteenth century

For most of the period before the eighteenth century, farmers used  a system known as hafod & hendre. The produce of the farm was mostly used to sustain the family using it and therefore consisted of some crops to feed both the family and the animals, as well as a range of livestock. In the summer the farmer and their animals went higher to the grazing on the uplands and the farmer would stay in the dwelling called the hafoty. In winter they would move back down to the lowlands and to the main family dwelling called the hendre. It was a system of transhumance much like that found in Europe. The hafoty was usually a small house and a cattle shed, although it could take the form of a single long house in which both the farmer and the animals stayed. The system allowed time for the crops in the lowlands to grow undisturbed and for the livestock to take advantage of the summer grazing in the uplands. Some sheepfolds would undoubtedly have existed and been built during this time, but it is important to recognise that the majority of the animals were cattle and not sheep. 

Changes in agriculture from the eighteenth century onwards - building of the sheepfolds

The hafod & hendre system died out from the eighteenth century for two reasons. Firstly, significant population growth in Britain, especially in the cities, caused a significant increase in demand for food production. The population of England and Wales rose 50% to 9 million between 1750 and 1800 (Census 1801, enumeration) and farming changed from subsistence farming to capitalist agriculture, in other words producing food for others. Secondly, and more importantly, it was a time when the large estates, such as the Penrhyn Estate, acquired significant amounts of common land which were then enclosed. By the mid eighteenth century the vast majority of north Wales farms were owned by the estates. The hafoty became permanent mountain farms and their animals were sent onto the common uplands to graze. The estates were interested in improving agricultural practices to meet the rising demand for food and were much more profit-driven. With the tenant farmers staying in a single dwelling all year round, sheep overtook cattle as the main form of livestock. Wool was much in demand at this time and farming sheep was much more profitable. In addition, the sheep could be sent up onto the common land in the summer and required less husbandry than cattle. However, at certain times of the year, such as shearing, it was necessary to gather the sheep and this is probably when most of the multicellular sheepfolds were built i.e. around 250 - 300 years ago. The extensive upland common grazing on the Carneddau, in particular, meant that once this system became established, this was the area in which most of the multicellular sheepfolds needed to be built. 

The first written reference to a sheepfold was in a book dated 1779.

Further information on The Enclosures 

To understand the history of sheep farming on the Carneddau, one needs to understand the history of commons grazing and the impact of what is usually known as The Enclosures that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Today, approximately 8.5% of the area of Wales is registered common land, totalling approximately 175,000 hectares, and most of these lands are found in Gwynedd and Powys.1 In Wales, most of the common lands (around 75%) in the uplands,2 and the Carneddau mountains are one of the largest areas of common land in north Wales. There are over 20 square miles of common land between Bethesda, Llanfairfechan, Capel Curig and Conwy.3 But at the end of the eighteenth century common land was much more significant - around one third of the land in Wales was commons, 687,000 hectares or 1.6m acres.4


Despite the name, common land is not, and never was, owned by the public. It is privately owned land, but land that local people have a legal right to use, to graze animals, grow crops and so on. In the past the rural population was mainly farm labourers who needed to eke out a living for themselves by keeping a few animals and growing some crops on field strips and they did this on the commons. Often it was poorer quality land and frequently overgrazed.


From the fourteenth century onwards, as estates in Wales became larger, enclosing the better parts of the common land increased. Effectively, by fair means or foul, this meant that parts of the commons used by local peasants were walled off and the legal rights to graze etc were removed, often without any compensation. For example, between 1360 and 1620, the large Cochwillan Estate near Llanllechid (which was eventually bought by the Penrhyn Estate) enclosed 2,000 acres of local commons.5


In the 16th century, English law was applied to Wales and from then on it became increasingly frequent to use Acts of Parliament to force through enclosure of common land. By 1750, this route to acquiring land was the norm for the large estates, which dominated the land ownership at that time. In north Wales, the number of Acts of Enclosure were as follows:6


1700 - 1760 3

1761 - 1801 20

1802 - 1811 32

1812 - 1844 24

1845 - 1885 22


From this can be seen the fact that the greatest period of legalised land confiscation took place around the time of the Napoleonic Wars (1799 - 1815), with over 30 Acts of Parliament in just nine years. Enclosure Acts slowed in the latter part of the 1800s because new laws increasingly recognised the amenity value of the commons. By one estimate, over half of the commons land in Wales in 1800 was enclosed within 100 years.4


The argument that the large estates put forward when petitioning for the Acts to be passed was that the use of the commons for farming was inefficient, that livestock were not looked after and were often underfed, the land was full of scrub and the field system in use did not allow for any improvements. There was little redress for the people using the common land that was enclosed and opposition turned out to be fruitless, even though riots frequently ensued. It was neatly summed up in a folk poem at that time:7


The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose. 


The estates were helped in their task by the significant increase in demand for food because of a rising urban population and because wool and mutton were much in demand during the Napoleonic Wars. They could argue that by improving farming methods, walling off land to protect crops and sending sheep onto the uplands to graze, they were helping the war effort. Effectively the changes that took place marked the end of subsistence farming and the start of commercial agriculture.


The 150 years to 1850 thus saw a very marked increase in the farming of sheep on the Carneddau, coupled with the building of all the structures that this involved - walls to keep sheep away from the growing crops, sheepfolds to enable flocks to be sorted, washed and sheared, shepherd shelters and so on and so forth.


The picture below shows the markings on a gatepost at the boundary of common land with farmland on the eastern Carneddau near Talyfan. The marking reads EP 1683. It is believed that EP would have been the official responsible for over-seeing the enclosing of the land and the date 1683 suggests that the building of the enclosures was well underway on the Carneddau over 100 years before the Napoleonic Wars. This also suggests that some of the sheepfolds in the area are also over 300 years old, as they would have needed to have been built at the same time.



Reference sources










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Cymru, L. (2021, Mehefin 14). Tir Comin. Retrieved from Cyfraith Cymru: https://law.gov.wales/cy/yr-amgylchedd/cefn-gwlad-mynediad/tir-comin

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