Welsh Drovers: Wales Had Cowboys Too

The rich history of drovers, the Welsh equivalent of cowboys.

| September 2013

Cowboys formed a huge part of my childhood. Not only did we play cowboys, we also watched them in films, and those staring John Wayne were particular favorites. However historically inaccurate those films might have been, they were often extremely moral, with the “baddie” always getting his comeuppance in the end. The “goodie” was often unconventional in appearance and behavior, which taught me early on never to judge a book by its cover. But the overriding picture of the hero was that of a cool, strong character with a fine, no-nonsense understanding of right and wrong.

I fell in love with these brave men who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, who lived their lives in the saddle and who told time by the sun. As an adventurous horse rider with a love of the great outdoors, I always felt slightly saddened that there were no cowboys in my past. Much as I loved them, cowboys were American and were not in any way a part of Welsh history.

But I was wrong, because we did have our own cowboys here, albeit in the dim and distant past. Instead of cowboys, we called them drovers. I was an adult before I knew this; I had heard of drovers, and even of ancient drover’s roads, but never given much thought to who the drovers really were. Cowboys had become immortalized on the big screen but drovers had not, and still haven’t today. So until recently I’d never realized how similar the life of the drover was to the life of the cowboy.

Who knows when people started to move livestock the length and breadth of Britain? It must have taken place on a small scale not long after farming began. Some people think that droving as a trade began whilst we were under Roman occupation (the last Romans left Britain in 410 A.D. after almost 400 years of occupation). Certainly by medieval times, droving was regularly taking place, and by the 16th century it had become an important part of the British economy. It continued until the 19th century, when the arrival of the railways killed off this great tradition.

As the large industrial towns of Britain began to grow and the population increased, meat had to be sourced from farther afield. Wales was one of the places deemed ideal for producing cattle and sheep. Throughout the summer months regular droves set off from Wales, with anything up to 1,000 head of cattle in the drove, and they would make a three-week long journey to places as far off as London.

The Welsh raconteur

I became interested in the largely forgotten story of the Welsh drovers after attending a lecture on the subject at my local historical society. The speaker, Idris Evans, turned out to be a great raconteur with a talent for telling a ripping good yarn. Many in the audience had never heard of Welsh drovers, and Idris, with his beautiful Welsh accent, his humour and enthusiasm, had us all gripped with his tales of these wise and wily characters.