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date: 20 April 2018

Evolution of Agricultural Practices and the Transformation of the English Landscape

Summary and Keywords

Agriculture has been the principal influence on the physical structure of the English landscape for many thousands of years. Driven by a wider raft of demographic, social, and economic developments, farming has changed in complex ways over this lengthy period, with differing responses to the productive potential and problems of local environments leading to the emergence of distinct regional landscapes. The character and configuration of these, as much as any contemporary influences, have in turn structured the practice of agriculture at particular points in time. The increasing complexity of the wider economy has also been a key influence on the development of the farmed landscape, especially large-scale industrialization in the late 18th and 19th centuries; and, from the late 19th century, globalization and increasing levels of state intervention. Change in agricultural systems has not continued at a constant rate but has displayed periods of more and less innovation.

Keywords: agricultural revolution, enclosure, field system, crops, landscape

Before Domesday

The arrival of farming in England at around 4000 bce was followed by several millennia during which—interrupted by sporadic reverses—much of the natural landscape of grazed woodland was cleared and replaced by cultivated land. The archaeological evidence leaves little doubt that by the time of the Roman Conquest in the middle of the 1st century, settlements could be found on almost all soils, albeit concentrated on lighter loams, especially the chalklands of southern England, perhaps reflecting the continued use of a simple ard plow that was incapable of turning a proper furrow. Settlement intensified still further during the Roman period, and by the 2nd century, to judge from the available evidence, few places in England can have been more than a kilometer from a farm, vill, or larger concentration of dwellings.

It is uncertain what this means in demographic terms, but while the population of Roman Britain was certainly less than the figure suggested by the evidence from Domesday Book (1086), of perhaps 2.5 million, it may have run it close. Large areas of woodland and open grazing survived, but farmland probably dominated the landscape across large parts of the country. Settlement on this scale implies a sophisticated agricultural system, and there is no real doubt that, on the larger holdings at least, a mold board plow that was capable of turning a proper furrow was in use.

In the immediate post-Roman period—the 5th and 6th centuries—there was a significant retraction of settlement onto lighter soils and permeable geologies, implying not only a decline in population, but also a regression in agrarian technology. The limited existing evidence suggests that simple ard plows were once more in general use. Only during the course of the Middle Saxon (7th to 9th centuries) and Late Saxon (9th to 11th centuries) periods was there a gradual recovery of population, and a reexpansion of farming on heavier soils. Archaeologists and landscape historians continue to debate the extent to which the post-Roman settlement contraction, as well as associated social changes, led to the abandonment of existing systems of land division, and to the extent that there was a significant degree of continuity, of land use and land holding. Some have argued that in parts of lowland England, the essential structure of the medieval and modern countryside (that is, the patterns of field boundaries and roads) was established in the prehistoric and Roman periods rather than during the course of the Middle Ages (Rippon, Smart, & Pears, 2015); but such views remain fiercely contested (Williamson, 2016). Either way, by the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, England was already, in Lennard’s famous words, an “old country,” long past the pioneer stage of colonization (Lennard, 1959, p. 11). Less than a fifth, and arguably as little as a tenth, of its area was by this time occupied by woodland, and even this was very different from the wild vegetation that had existed before the advent of farming in the fourth millennium BC and was heavily exploited for centuries for wood, timber, and grazing. Large areas of the country—indeed, more than half the land area—was arable, mostly cultivated using a heavy mold-board plow pulled by six (or even eight) oxen.

Medieval Farming and Landscapes

The population of England was increasing rapidly at the time of the Norman Conquest, and it continued to rise—possibly as much as doubling—over the following two centuries. Tracts of unenclosed grazing and woodland contracted steadily. Much was converted to arable land, but portions were also taken into private ownership by the social elite as deer parks—private wood-pastures that functioned as venison farms and hunting reserves—or as more intensively managed, coppiced woodland, in which the majority of trees and bushes were cut down to at or near ground level on a rotation of between 7 and 15 years in order to provide a regular crop of poles, suitable for firewood, fencing and other everyday uses. Only a minority of the trees were managed as timber. The remaining areas of open land survived as the commons or wastes exploited by particular communities or groups of communities.

By the 13th century, when local documents become abundant, we can obtain a reasonably clear view of the organization of farming across much of England. Most of the land was exploited by peasant farmers. Some were effectively free proprietors, but most paid a rent to a manorial lord, either in cash or as labor on his demesne, or “home farm”—the land kept in hand and managed to produce a range of marketable commodities. The peasant farms comprised a house site and associated yards, as well as an area of defined land, mainly cultivated as arable, to which were appended rights to use the nonarable commons of the manor for grazing and as a source of firing and raw materials. Most of the classic seminatural habitats found in England were then common land, including heaths, upland moors, fens, and chalk downs. In addition, there remained many tracts of grazed woodland or wood-pasture. By the 13th century, manorial lords were recognized as the legal owners of common land, but their ability to exploit it was limited by the rights enjoyed by their tenants. Meadows were also a crucial feature of the farming landscape, providing hay, which was vital as winter fodder to support the livestock without which arable farming would have been impossible, as they provided manure to fertilize the land and traction for the plow.

As population continued to climb through the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, patterns of fields and settlement developed along increasingly divergent lines in England, leading in time to the emergence of a range of distinct regional landscapes. The most dramatic contrast was between upland areas, where population levels generally remained low, the extent of arable land limited, and large areas of rough grazing survived; and the more cultivated and populous lowlands. But there was also, within the latter, a distinction between what early-modern topographers later described as champion and woodland districts (Roberts & Wrathmell, 2002, pp. 1–3; Rackham, 1986, pp. 1–5; Williamson, 2013, pp. 125–146). The former, characterized by nucleated villages farming extensive communal open-field systems, occupied a great swath of central England from Yorkshire to the Channel coast. Farms comprised numerous separate, unhedged strips, each around 7 meters wide, which were scattered through the territory of the township, in some cases with such regularity that the same sequence of properties was repeated throughout the fields. For the purposes of cropping the strips—lands or selions—were grouped into bundles called furlongs, and in turn generally into two or three great “fields,” one of which lay fallow each year and was grazed by the village livestock, their dung replenishing the nutrients depleted by repeated cropping (Hall, 1982, 1995). The other fields would not all be occupied by the same crop—the unit of rotation was actually the furlong rather than the field—but they generally contained crops in the same season; that is, one field would be autumn sown and the other spring sown. In many places, these highly communal farming systems, cultivated according to rules articulated in manorial courts and village assemblies, survived into the 18th or even 19th centuries, when they were removed by large-scale enclosure, often through parliamentary acts. Thus was created the landscape of straight-sided fields, defined by walls or flimsy hawthorn hedges, which is often referred to—following the historical ecologist Rackham—as planned countryside, and which dominates this broad central belt of the country (Rackham, 1986, pp. 4–5).

To the south and east, as well as to the west, lay what early topographers referred to as “woodland” landscapes, and which are sometimes described as “ancient countryside” by modern scholars. Here, settlement was more dispersed in character, with scattered farms and hamlets—many strung around commons and small “greens”—as well as compact villages. Often some, and occasionally the majority, of the land lay in hedged closes. But open fields of a kind usually existed, although they were rather different in their layout from those found in champion districts. They were generally irregular in character: that is, the holdings of individual farmers were clustered in particular areas of the fields, usually near their farmstead, rather than being scattered throughout the lands of the township (Campbell, 1981; Martin & Satchell, 2008; Roden, 1973). Often (although by no means always), communal controls on the organization of agriculture were less pervasive than in the champion. Such landscapes were often well wooded, but the term woodland referred to the number of hedges and hedgerow trees that they contained, for even where open fields were prominent, they were often numerous and small.

Woodland and champion are simplified terms, each covering a range of landscapes. There were, in particular, two main types of champion countryside (Williamson, 2013, 125–146). One, found on light, well-drained land, overlying chalk, or sand, boasted extensive tracts of unplowed ground—downland or heath—in addition to the open arable. This was because nutrients were washed out of these freely draining soils with particular rapidity and needed to be very regularly replenished. These were “sheep-corn” districts: by day, huge flocks were grazed on the heaths or downs, and by night, they were close-folded on the arable after harvest or when it lay fallow, treading in urine and dung and providing a much-needed injection of nitrogen and other nutrients (Kerridge, 1967, pp. 43–51). In such districts, the open-field strips or lands were usually plowed flat and separated by narrow, unplowed balks (Kerridge, 1992, 25–30). In the Midland areas of England, in contrast, champion landscapes were mainly associated with heavy clays. Here, the individual lands were plowed in broad ridges to assist in drainage. These still survive in places, preserved under grass as the earthworks known to archaeologists as ridges and furrows. Landscapes like these lacked the great open pastures—the nutrient reserves of down or heath—of the sheep-corn lands. Heavy soils retained nutrients better than light, permeable ones, and close-folding would, for much of the year, have damaged the soil structure (Kerridge, 1992, pp. 77–79). The fallows were dunged by the village livestock, but in a less intensive manner.

Woodland landscapes displayed a corresponding degree of variation, especially in terms of the proportion of the cultivated land that lay in open fields, and the extent to which farming was carried out on communal lines. In addition, many parts of the country, such as western East Anglia, displayed intermediate characteristics, making their definition as woodland or champion problematic. Moreover, while the two kinds of landscape generally displayed the kind of broad regional distribution just noted, when described in detail, pockets of woodland countryside could be found deep within the champion, such as in north Bedfordshire, while (more rarely) islands of champion land could be found within the woodland (Brown & Taylor, 1989). Generalized landscape terms like these conceal a wide range of local and regional variation, although they do represent a useful way of thinking about the medieval countryside.

The origins of this broad division remain a matter of keen debate among landscape historians and other scholars. Some have attributed it primarily to tenurial factors, seeing champion regions as ones in which manorial lords enforced a collectivization of agriculture at some point in the early Middle Ages in order to increase productivity and thus seigneurial revenue (Foard, 1978; Hall, 1995). Others have seen the division as a reflection of variations in demographic pressure, with more collective forms of agriculture (and more nucleated forms of settlement) arising in the most densely settled districts, again with the goal of increasing production and maximizing scarce resources, especially of grazing (Campbell, 1981; Fox, 1981; Thirsk, 1966; Lewis, Mitchell-Fox, & Dyer, 2002). Both arguments have their attractions, but both woodland and champion landscapes could, in fact, be found in areas which, by the time of Domesday at least, were characterized by strong and divided lordship, and by high, medium, and low population densities.

An alternative explanation sees the distribution of different landscape types as largely a consequence of environmental factors (Williamson, 2013, pp. 184–206). Champion landscapes developed in districts in which the population was obliged to cluster together in villages, rather than dispersing across the landscape, so that—as population increased, as the frontiers of cultivation expanded, and as land became progressively subdivided through partible inheritance, sale, or exchange—large numbers of holdings became extensively intermingled across wide tracts of the surrounding landscape. In time, communities—with or without the intervention of their feudal superiors—reorganized such chaotic patterns of landholding along more regular lines. In woodland areas, in contrast, there was a greater degree of settlement dispersal, with new farms often scattered around the dwindling areas of unplowed common waste rather than simply being added to an existing settlement focus, so that peasant holdings never became extensively intermingled across wide areas of ground.

One key factor in the emergence of regional variations in settlement and fields was probably hydrology. Over much of England, water can be obtained almost anywhere, from shallow wells, and in these districts, for the most part, settlement patterns exhibiting varying degrees of dispersion, farming irregular field systems or enclosures, could be found. But in areas of very permeable geology (such as chalk and limestone), and also across much of the Midlands, where pre-Cretaceous clays form deep impermeable masses without significant aquifers, good supplies of water tend to be found only at spring and seepage lines. Here, larger settlement clusters usually developed. In most localities, more than one possible site for settlement was usually available, but in these same areas, a number of additional agrarian factors seem to have encouraged the clustering of farms into compact villages.

Since debate on the origins of open fields began in the 19th century, a succession of historians have emphasized the importance of co-aration—the sharing of plows and teams between groups of farmers—in the genesis of open fields (Orwin & Orwin, 1938, pp. 12–14, 51–52). As larger and heavier plows came into widespread use in the course of the Saxon period, drawn by six or eight oxen, cultivators might have been encouraged to live in close proximity in order to facilitate sharing in circumstances where teams had to be assembled with particular rapidity—something difficult to achieve where farms were scattered widely across the landscape. In this context, the close association of villages farming extensive open fields, and pre-Cretaceous clays and mudstones giving rise to particularly difficult soils (pelostagnogleys or noncalcareous pelosols) should be noted. Such soils, widespread in the Midlands and especially problematic there because of relatively high rainfall levels, are especially prone to structural damage when plowed wet. This fact would have placed a premium on the careful timing of agricultural operations, particularly on the rapid exploitation of plowing “windows” during the spring (Williamson, 2003, pp. 196–201; Hodge, Burton, Corbett, Evans, & Searle, 1984). In addition, co-aration and a particularly short window for cultivation may have had a direct impact on the form of fields, encouraging in particular the highly regular scattering of holdings across land of varying aspect and drainage potential, and lying at varying distances from the village, which is a particular feature of the Midlands. Plowed in sequence, the lands of all those who contributed to the common plows had an equal likelihood of being ready for seeding in reasonable time and in reasonable condition.

Other bottlenecks in the farming year, where tools and labor needed to be mobilized with rapidity, may have similarly encouraged a significant degree of settlement clustering in these Midland districts. The great Midland plain is characterized by large rivers with wide flood plains, like the Nene, the Trent, and the Ouse, providing particular abundant reserves of hay meadow (Campbell, 2000, pp. 75–76). Hay needed to be cut, repeatedly turned, carted, and stacked with great speed—poor weather could ruin the harvest—and efficiencies in the organization of labor, arising from the sharing of carts and other equipment, would have speeded the effective execution of these tasks.

Elsewhere, in areas of light, freely draining soil, the critical need to replenish nutrients lost through leaching may have provided rather different incentives to the development of large, nucleated villages. The need to organize the close folding of sheep on the arable, to move the flocks from grazing to plowland each day and to ensure that animas were kept away from areas under crops in a landscape of increasingly intermingled holdings, was best achieved through the development of communal flocks and rotations, which is most easily administered from a clustered group of farms.

Above and beyond these regional differences in the character of fields and settlement, whatever their precise origins, medieval agriculture exhibited a wide range of variation in patterns of cropping, modes of livestock farming, and the balance of livestock and arable (Campbell, 2000). In some districts, especially on poorly draining ground, wheat and beans were major crops; in the uplands, and on poor acid soils, oats and rye were important; and on light calcareous land, barley was a major product. In almost all districts, land was left fallow—with weed growth grazed by livestock—every second or third year, occasionally on a longer rotation. In most areas, with population pressing hard on resources, cereal production was the major concern not only of peasant producers, but also of the larger demesne farms, which effectively functioned as grain factories, feeding the growing towns. Only in upland areas, and in districts of particularly acid soils where large tracts of heathland survived, did livestock production take precedence, although sheep and cattle were an indispensable part of farming everywhere, not only to produce meat, wool, leather, and dairy products, but also for the traction and manure that they provided.

Arable productivity seems to have varied greatly from place to place. In some districts, especially where open fields were less regular in character—such as northeast Norfolk—peasant proprietors had, by the 13th century, developed highly productive farming systems in which crops like peas and beans were extensively cultivated and fallows virtually eliminated. As a result, partible inheritance allowed the continued fragmentation of farms, with average holding size dropping to 10 acres (c. 4 hectares) or less, considerably smaller than the 30 acres (c. 12 hectares) that was the norm in Midland districts (Campbell, 1981). There were many changes in the practice of English agriculture over time, in part as a response to a rising market, as the population was pressed hard in terms of resources. There were thus significant changes in plowing technology with the gradual replacement of oxen by horses—a development again more a feature of districts lying outside the champion belt than within it (Langdon, 1986).

The Early-Modern Countryside

The period of population growth that underpinned the development of the medieval landscape came to an end in the early 14th century due to livestock disease and climatic deterioration; and then it went into sharp reverse from 1348, with the advent of the Black Death. The population shrank by at least a third in the second half of the 14th century. This led, directly and indirectly, to significant changes in the organization of agriculture. Depressed grain prices encouraged the laying of much arable land to pasture during the later 14th and 15th centuries, as prices of meat and other animal products held up better than those for grain; and in all areas, farms tended to increase in size, in part because survivors of epidemics took over holdings left vacant by the demise of less fortunate families. These developments, initiated by the late medieval population decline, were also related to wider changes in the organization of society, with complex causes—and they continued, and to some extent intensified, even as demographic growth resumed in the course of the 16th century. The old forms of customary tenure gradually evolved into a range of copyholds, some of which effectively recognizing local lords as owners of their manors and their tenants as tenants in the modern sense; others providing farmers with a greater degree of security; and some giving them so many proprietorial rights that they effectively joined the ranks of the small numbers of freeholders who had always existed among the peasant population. Yeomen farmers, as well as many of the gentry and aristocracy, sought ways to increase their profits and the size of their properties as a more complex and market-oriented economy developed. Farms continued to increase in size, and production continued to become more specialized, leading to the emergence of a pattern of specialized farming regions by the middle of the 16th century. While many lowland districts continued to focus on grain production, especially on the lighter land and more fertile loams, others—especially areas of heavy clay—came to specialize in livestock farming: in dairying or in the fattening of sheep and cattle that often had been reared elsewhere, in remote upland regions (Kerridge, 1967; Thirsk, 1987).

The extent to which particular kinds of farming economies could develop in any district, however, was contingent to an extent on the character of field systems, for an emphasis on livestock husbandry was easier in a landscape of enclosed fields and more difficult where, as in Midland districts, land lay in extensive and highly communal open fields and holdings lay scattered in unhedged strips. Where champion villages were small and located on particularly difficult clay or other marginal ground, and their inhabitants held their land by insecure copyholds, they were sometimes depopulated by manorial lords, usually following a period of more gradual decline, when some farmers had moved to take up more amenable holdings elsewhere. In many Midland townships, large-scale sheep farming thus replaced arable agriculture, with the earthworks of deserted villages preserved under the turf. These kinds of unilateral, depopulating enclosures declined during the 16th century, in part because the most vulnerable communities had by now been picked off. They were replaced by enclosure by agreement, in which the principal proprietors agreed to enclose, carried out the appropriate surveys, reallotted intermixed arable land as consolidated holdings, and divided the commons in proportion to the rights that had been exercised over them (Yelling, 1977; Reed, 1981). From the mid-17th century, confidence and stability were often given to the new dispensation by bringing a fictitious legal dispute to the court of Chancery, contesting the agreement. Once the court found against the plaintiff, the enclosure was deemed secure.

Where less regular open fields existed, they were usually enclosed in a rather different way—in a gradual, piecemeal manner. Individual proprietors bought and sold, or exchanged, strips in order to create consolidated holdings that could then be surrounded with a fence, hedge, or wall and then be cultivated on an individual basis. Over time, the open arable was gradually whittled away, leaving only the areas of common grazing which, being areas of mixed use-rights rather than intermixed properties, could not easily be removed in this kind of piecemeal, individualistic manner (Yelling, 1977, pp. 11–29). Piecemeal enclosure was more important in these districts than in champion areas (although it occurred to some extent there) because communal controls on agriculture were less deeply entrenched and, in particular, the intermixture of holdings was less. As a result, each portion of the open fields contained the lands of few proprietors, and relatively few transactions were required to create compact blocks of land in severalty. This kind of enclosure produced distinctive field patterns, for open-field strips had seldom been dead straight but instead exhibited a slightly sinuous layout, characteristically taking the form of a shallow “reverse S,” caused by the way in which the plowman moved to the left with his team as he approached the headland at the end of the strip, in order to avoid too tight a turning circle (Eyre, 1955). Because the new walls and hedges were established along the edges of bundles of strips, they served to preserve, in simplified form, the slightly wavy lines of the earlier landscape. Whatever the precise method of enclosure, the hedges planted in the 16th and 17th centuries, like those established in the Middle Ages, generally consisted of a range of woody shrubs. This was partly because it was difficult to source large quantities of hedging thorn in the absence of a commercial nursery industry, and in part because the wood produced from mixed hedges by routine maintenance (generally by laying or plashing—substantially cutting back the hedge and weaving the remaining stems at intervals of 10 or 12 years) produced much firing and small pieces of wood with other uses on the farm (Barnes & Williamson, 2006, pp. 73–96; Warde & Williamson, 2014).

By the 17th century, many woodland districts on the heavier soils in southeastern and western England had become areas of mixed husbandry with a strong pastoral bias, with three-quarters or more of their land under grass. In the champion Midlands, in contrast, although the soils were well suited to livestock farming, the difficulties of enclosure ensured that arable continued to dominate the landscape, at least in the period up to 1650. We should note, however, that not all woodland areas developed pastoral economies. Some, like the Chiltern Hills, remained important cereal-growing districts; there was no neat correspondence of medieval landscape structures and field systems and postmedieval regional farming economies.

The various farming regions that had developed by the start of the 16th century underwent many changes, but their boundaries, broadly related to soil types, remained remarkably stable from the 15th to the mid-18th centuries. According to some historians, they were not merely economic entities. They also had important social correlates (Thirsk, 1987). In particular, cattle-farming and dairying areas in old-enclosed woodland districts tended to be characterized by numerous small and medium-sized farms and by a plethora of small estates owned by local gentry, rather than by the extensive properties of large landowners. They were often areas of Puritanism and religious dissent, supporting the parliamentary cause during the Civil War (Underdown, 1985). They were also districts of early industrial development, centers of textile manufacture, coal mining, and iron production. Arable farming in contrast—especially on light soils—encouraged a greater polarization of landholding. By the 18th century, but already to some extent before this, they were characterized by large estates, large tenant farms, and a population of landless laborers. Essentially conformist in religion, they were firmly under aristocratic control. Such contrasts, and others, have been too firmly drawn in the past (Overton, 1996, p. 57): but the various demands—on land, capital, and labor—made by different farming economies unquestionably helped structure aspects of social organization and patterns of nonagrarian economic development.

While in some respects, early-modern agriculture was characterized by stability, especially in terms of the longevity of farming regions, in others, it exhibited a high degree of innovation—so much so that historians like Eric Kerridge and Robert Allen have viewed the 16th and 17th centuries as the time of an agricultural revolution more profound than that which occurred in the following centuries (Kerridge, 1967; Allen, 1992, 1999). Cereal yields were significantly increased, it is claimed, as population growth continued through the 16th and early 17th centuries, with a concomitant recovery in grain prices. It has been argued that production was raised in part through the more careful selection of cereal seeds and in part through the greater attention paid to manuring and to techniques like marling—that is, the practice of excavating pits in the fields to reach a more calcareous subsoil, which could then be spread on the surface to neutralize acidity. Some historians have also championed the importance of convertible, or “up-and-down,” husbandry, in which many fields were laid to pasture for several years, then plowed up and cultivated for a period, and then laid down again. Kerridge also championed the role of wetland drainage, although more recent research has shown that the largest reclamation projects, in the Fenlands of eastern England, had only limited success. Drainage led to the shrinkage of the peat surface and renewed flooding, only partially remedied by the erection of drainage windmills (Darby, 1983, pp. 105–107). Indeed, there are grounds for believing that in general, the scale of early-modern agricultural innovation—or at least the scale of its results—has been exaggerated, and in many districts, cereal yields in the 17th century appear little different from those achieved by medieval farmers (Campbell & Overton, 1993).

Two innovations, however, probably were significant, at least in certain regions, because they began to address the key problem that had long bedeviled farming in England—namely, the limitations on fertility resulting from restricted supplies of manure, caused by the fact that stocking levels were low because fodder shortage restricted the number of livestock that could be kept through the winter. The first of these innovations was the irrigation, or “floating,” of water meadows, a technique probably practiced on a limited and simple scale in the Middle Ages, but which became more widespread and sophisticated from the 16th century forward. Floating involved the artificial inundation of meadowland, in late winter and early spring, with continually flowing water, so that the ground temperature was raised above 5°C. This stimulated an early growth of grass and thus reduced the length of time during which livestock had to be fed on hay and other fodder. Irrigation began before Christmas, and stock were put onto the fresh grass in early March. After they had been moved to summer pastures—usually in early May—the meadows would again be irrigated, and substantial crops of hay would be taken in June or July (Bettey, 1999; Kerridge, 1954; Cook & Williamson, 2007; Cutting & Cummings, 1999).

Irrigation thus served to raise the numbers of animals that could be overwintered, and therefore boost manure supplies, in two ways. Such meadows were especially important in the sheep-corn districts of southern England, where the fortunes of arable farming were particularly dependent upon the manure supplied by the folding flocks. There were two main forms of meadow irrigation. Catchwork floating involved cutting channels along the contours of a valleyside, the uppermost being fed from a leat taken off the river at a higher level, or from nearby springs or watercourses; the water simply flowed down the natural slope from one ditch, or gutter, to the next. More sophisticated were bedworks, which were employed wherever valley floors were wide and flat and water could not otherwise be induced to flow continuously (which was essential: stagnant water damaged the grass). A leet taken off the river some distance upstream fed water into channels (known as carriers or carriages) that ran along the tops of parallel ridges, superficially resembling the ridge and furrow of former arable fields. The water flowed down their sides and into the furrows, which returned it to the river. Apart from the warming effects of the water in winter and its irrigating properties (counteracting any soil water deficiency) in the summer, floating probably brought other benefits. Contemporaries emphasized the improvements that lime and suspended nutrients brought to the quality of the sward, while recent studies have suggested that it may have altered its composition, favoring broad-leafed species that were more palatable and nutritious to livestock (Cutting & Cummings, 2007).

The second key innovation, usually associated with the agricultural revolution of the later 18th century but widely adopted in some districts by the second half of the 17th century, was the cultivation of new fodder crops. Clover came into widespread use as a field crop, especially in East Anglia and the home counties. Cut as hay, it provided particularly rich and abundant winter feed; it also had the advantage (shared with peas and beans) of fixing nitrogen directly into the soil. Turnips were also cultivated as a winter feed, initially as a catch crop in the late summer, although on a different scale from clover. In fact, in many cases, both crops were sown, less with an eye to raising cereal yields and more from a desire to increase income from meat. In 1683, one Suffolk rector described how many of his parishioners “convert their arable … into clover grass; and often sow their fallows with turnips for the de-pasturing of their sheep and cattle” (Williamson, 2002, pp. 97–100).

The Agricultural Revolution

Such an emphasis on livestock farming reflects the fact that, from c. 1660, population growth petered out and was sluggish for nearly a century, and at times even reversed. Arable farming was in a relatively depressed state, encouraging greater concentration in the rearing of sheep and cattle. But from c. 1750, the population began to increase rapidly and continued to do so, rising from around 6 million to around 9 million by 1800 to reach nearly 18 million by 1851 (Mitchell & Deane, 1962, pp. 5–6). Food production expanded at an equivalent rate. Even in 1851, imports accounted for only about 16% of foodstuffs consumed in England and Wales; to feed the population, the volume of wheat more than doubled, while that of barley may have increased by over two-thirds in the course of the later 18th and early 19th centuries, and increases in the production of other foodstuffs were probably of a similar order (Holderness, 1989, p. 145; Beckett, 1990, p. 9). There was, at the same time, a dramatic improvement in what economic historians call “labor productivity”; that is, the number of individuals required to produce a given quantity of food. In 1760, the work of each agricultural worker could feed approximately one other person, but by 1841, it could feed another 2.7 people (Overton, 1996, pp. 121–129). This, in short, was the age of the classic “agricultural revolution,” as articulated by a long list of eminent agricultural historians, beginning with Lord Ernle (1912).

Most researchers agree that this phenomenal growth in food production was achieved both by expanding the cultivated acreage and by substantially increasing cereal yields. The enclosure of land was now made much easier by the development of parliamentary enclosure acts. These not only allowed the removal of the remaining open fields (mainly in the Midlands and in areas of light, sheep-corn land), but also the enclosure of the vast areas of common grazing that still existed, especially moors in the uplands and heaths and downs in the lowlands. Much of this land was converted to improved pasture or plowed as arable, often after appropriate measures had been taken to improve soil quality or neutralize acidity, especially through large-scale marling. Although parliamentary enclosure looms large in the popular imagination—and in the work of historians, in part because ample documentation means that it is easier to study than other, earlier methods of enclosure—its impact should not be exaggerated, for it affected less than a quarter, and arguably little more than a fifth, of the land area of England (Turner, 1980). Most of the country had either always been cultivated in walled or hedged fields or had been enclosed from open fields of commons by other means. Much of the common land enclosed by parliamentary acts, moreover, was of relatively poor quality—hence in part its survival, as unplowed common grazing, in previous centuries. This said, the expansion of the cultivated area following enclosure in the 18th and 19th centuries significantly increased agricultural output, especially in the lowlands.

Enclosure of the remaining open fields, moreover, also gave farmers the freedom to adopt new methods of farming. The cultivation of turnips, clover, and other new forms of grass and roots as field crops was now taken up throughout England. The fodder crops were alternated with courses of cereals in a variety of new rotations, of which the “Norfolk Four Course”—a recurrent cycle of wheat, turnips, barley, and clover—is the most famous (Overton, 1991; O’Brien, 1985, p. 779). The turnips (or other roots) were fed off in the fields by sheep or taken to cattle stalled in yards, while the clover (or similar green fodder crop) was grazed directly or cut for hay. In reality, many farmers employed some variation on the “four course” on more fertile soils (for example, often adding an additional cereal course), but the effects were much the same. More livestock could now be kept, more manure produced, and thus higher yields achieved. The enclosure of commons, as well as the adoption of new rotations, were closely linked, especially in areas of light land. Once fodder crops were grown in the fields and consumed either there or in neighboring farmyards, the downs and heaths were no longer required as places to graze the folding flocks: they, too, could be plowed up and used to grow cereals and fodder. In one sense, the new farming methods thus served to destroy the age-old distinction between permanent pasture and permanent arable, with significant effects on ecology. Between 1750 and c. 1840, production, of cereals especially, was thus increased both by raising yields on existing arable land and by extending the cultivated acreage.

While this oft-repeated story of the development of farming in the later 18th and 19th centuries is broadly true, it can be argued that the agricultural revolution was, in fact, a more complex process, and one must be careful in particular not to exaggerate the role of the new rotations. The raw figures for increases in cereal yields presented in many texts tend to obscure the fact that land was now often being cropped less intensively, for when a farm was cultivated under a traditional course of “two crops and a fallow,” two-thirds of the land was devoted to growing cereals at any one time, but when an improved four-course rotation was adopted, this fell to half, offsetting to a significant extent the scale of the headline yield improvement. Indeed, it is arguable that by sowing half their land with fodder crops, farmers were in fact mainly trying to satisfy an expanding market for meat, especially among better-off town dwellers, rather than trying to enhance cereal yields. Moreover, the new rotations were more important in raising yields in some districts—those of light, easily leached land, the traditional sheep-corn areas—than in others, where the soils were more fertile and held nutrients better.

In these latter districts, other innovations, often ignored by historians, were of critical significance, such as the adoption of systematic field drainage in areas of heavy land, initially using “bush” drains—trenches cut across fields that were filled with brushwood or various other materials, capped with straw or furze, and then backfilled with soil. Across large areas of old-enclosed land in the south of England and East Anglia, moreover, the dense pattern of hedges inherited from earlier phases of enclosure was now simplified, and thousands upon thousands of pollards (trees cropped for firewood) and other hedgerow timber were felled, both increasing yields (by reducing shading and competition for nutrients) and increasing the cultivated area. These changes reflect the fact that many of these districts had specialized in livestock farming and dairying since the 16th century, but now shifted decisively to arable.

This is another aspect of the agricultural revolution that is often neglected—the later 18th and early 19th centuries witnessed a major change in the geography of farming in England. The complex pattern of early-modern farming regions rapidly disappeared. Instead, a simpler picture emerged. Arable farming came to be concentrated in the east of England, where not only the clayland pastures of areas like Suffolk were progressively plowed up, but also—following enclosure, improvements in arterial watercourses, and, from 1812, the adoption of steam drainage—the East Anglian Fenlands. Meanwhile, the enclosure of open fields by parliamentary acts, especially in the 1760s and 1770s, was followed by the laying of large areas of plowland to pasture in Midland counties like Northamptonshire and Leicestershire. These changes ensured that today, most cereal crops are grown in the areas best suited for arable farming, in the drier east part of England, a critical development in expanding production (Williamson, 2002).

Such crops were also cultivated more intensively. The turnips were planted in wide rows, allowing weeding, while the dense foliage produced as they matured shaded out competitors, cleansing the ground for the following cereal course. Grain crops were also increasingly sown in rows, rather than being broadcast, likewise allowing greater intensity of weeding. All this required large inputs of labor, and in a host of ways, the new husbandry depended on a pool of flexible, relatively poorly paid workers, for it involved such things as the digging and carting of marl, the construction of underdrains, and the movement of manure produced by stall-fed cattle to the fields. To some extent, such a workforce was provided simply by rapid population growth. But it was also supplied as an indirect consequence of industrialization, for this served to concentrate manufacturing in certain areas of the country—namely, the north and west, where water power was freely available and the principal coal reserves were located—leading in turn to a measure of deindustrialization in the increasingly arable south and east, as cottage industries like textile weaving went into a gradual decline, thus freeing up cheap labor for agricultural work, which was often seasonal or casual in character.

Industrialization also facilitated the emergence of the new geography of agricultural production because the improvement of roads and the construction of canals also facilitated the movement of grain, allowing production to be concentrated at a considerable distance from markets. There were, indeed, many other important links between the two “revolutions,” agricultural and industrial. In particular, the adoption of coal as the main form of domestic fuel in England (something that was also in large measure a consequence of improved transport systems) meant that the use of organic fuels declined, even in districts remote from coalfields. This almost certainly encouraged the systematic removal of hedges and pollards—hitherto key sources of domestic fuel—in many old-enclosed areas of England, as well as the enclosure of local fens and heaths, formerly important for peat, heather, gorse, and other forms of firing (Warde & Williamson, 2014).

Agricultural modernization continued into the middle decades of the 19th century, but now it took a slightly different form. High farming is the term often used to describe the high-input, high-output agriculture that developed in England from the late 1830s. It relied on manufactured and imported materials rather than on the recycling of nutrients and raw materials within the farm itself, and substituted durable fixtures and machines for high and regular inputs of labor (Thompson, 1968; Wade Martins, 1995, pp. 101–102; Chambers & Mingay, 1966, p. 170; Harvey, 1980). One novel feature was the employment of imported or manufactured fertilizer. Guano came into widespread use in the 1840s and 1850s, together with bone dust, and in the 1840s, superphosphates were developed by John Bennett Lawes; by the 1870s, £4 million were being spent each year on this commodity. Another key innovation was the use of oil cake, a by-product of the rape and linseed oil extraction industries, as animal fodder. Although turnips, together with other root crops like mangold wurzels and Swedes, continued to be the main form of winter feed, the national consumption of cake rose from around 24,000 tons in 1825 to 160,000 in 1870.

The spread of the rail network helped ensure that by the 1870s, in the arable east of England, few farms lay more than 10 miles from a supplier. Livestock numbers rose even more, and the resultant increase in manure would have further boosted cereal yields even without the use of the new fertilizers. Equally important were developments in farming infrastructure, with new forms of building; significant levels of mechanization, including the use of steam engines for threshing and, to a more limited extent, plowing; and new systems of field drainage using earthenware pipes rather than trenches filled with stones or organic materials. Ceramic land drains had been sporadically used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, either in the form of semicircular tiles laid on flat tiles or as handmade pipes, but pipe drainage was given a major boost by the development of a machine—patented by Thomas Scraggs in 1842—that could produce cylindrical clay pipes (Phillips, 1999). Fiscal changes in 1826 exempted drainage pipes from a tax levied on tiles and bricks,; and a government loan scheme, allowing estates to borrow substantial sums for drainage and other improvements; were further encouragements (Harvey, 1980, p. 81). Between 1847 and 1899 just under £5.5 million was advanced by the Land Improvement Companies responsible for administering the loans, but many large estates simply funded drainage programmes and other improvements from their own capital (Phillips, 1999). Increasingly, drainage was aimed at areas of pasture in the west and north, as well as arable. The two phases of improvement in the 18th and 19th centuries were not entirely distinct, of course. Turnips and the new rotations continued to be a mainstay of agriculture in the middle and later decades of the 19th century, while enclosure, while largely completed by the 1820s, continued at a declining rate throughout the 19th century.

Farming Landscapes Since the Late 19th Century

English farming thus flourished and developed in many complex ways for a century or more after 1750. But from the mid-1870s, it began to slide into a long period of relative depression, principally caused by the expansion of the railway network in the United States into the prairies of the Midwest, so European markets were flooded with cheap grain. No longer kept artificially high by the operation of the Corn Law, which was repealed in 1846, English wheat prices were halved between 1873 and 1893, while those for barley and oats fell by a third. Following a brief period of stabilization, a further intense depression occurred after 1896, this time affecting not only arable farmers but also livestock producers, as cheap meat began to be imported on refrigerated ships from the New World and Australia. British agriculture could not compete in an increasingly globalized world. Some of the more marginal land reclaimed during the previous century was now abandoned (and sometimes planted up as commercial plantation by the Forestry Commission, set up in 1919), and large areas of arable were laid to grass, so that arable retreated almost completely to the southern and eastern areas of England, and especially to East Anglia and Lincolnshire (Perren, 1995; Perry, 1974).

In many accounts of English farming, the period running all the way to the outbreak of World War II in 1939 is depicted as one continuous period of gloom, but in reality, there were phases of recovery, as during and immediately after World War I, and not all forms of farming suffered to an equal extent. In many ways, this was also a period of change and innovation, as agriculture responded to the challenges posed by low prices. New crops were adopted—especially sugar beet, from the 1920s—and there was much diversification, involving an expansion in dairying and smallholding, in fruit-growing and market gardening, and in poultry production, all encouraged by both low wheat prices and the ease of transportation, to distant urban markets, now provided by the railways. Indeed, the picture often painted of a countryside farmed at very low levels of intensity is misleading. In many districts, for example, the progressive removal of hedges and simplification of field patterns that had begun in the 18th century continued, if at a lower rate, Such changes were encouraged by the adoption of tractors in place of horses, something which began in earnest in the inter-War years. Mosby (1938, pp. 213–214) described how, in northeast Norfolk, there was “a tendency in some areas to enlarge the fields by removing the intervening hedge. Where this has been done the farmers, particularly those who use a tractor plough, have reduced their labour costs.”

World War II brought the depression in farming to an abrupt end, as enemy blockades stimulated a massive increase in production. The arable acreage in England and Wales rose by around 5 million acres (c. 2 million hectares) between 1939 and 1945 (Short, Watkins, & Martin, 2007). One writer, observing changes in the Essex countryside, described it in this way:

The plough has been put into the pasture. Hedges have been cut down to the ground and ditches opened up everywhere. Fields which the villagers swore never had been any good, and never would be, have been coaxed into fertility. Spruce copse and oak wood alike have been felled; and even village commons have been ploughed and planted.

(Warren, 1943, p. ix)

Continued food shortages after the war ensured that the national government, and subsequently the European Economic Community and the European Union, continued to stimulate production with a range of subsidies. This, moreover, came at a time when a barrage of new technological developments was becoming available to farmers. Tractors increased rapidly in numbers; combined harvesters were introduced from the United States. Both worked most effectively in large fields; hedge removal thus proceeded apace, especially in arable districts. Between 1946 and 1970, around 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometres) of hedge were destroyed each year in England and Wales, with the greatest losses occurring in the eastern counties, and especially in areas of long-enclosed ancient countryside, where small, irregularly shaped fields posed particular problems for machinery (Muir & Muir, 1997, pp. 225–226; Baird & Tarrant, 1970). Countless farmland trees were felled, something compounded from the late 1960s by the impact of Dutch elm disease. Fields were more effectively drained, many remaining areas of heathland were reclaimed, ponds were filled in, coastal marshlands were plowed, streams and rivers were canalized, and numerous areas of ancient woodland were grubbed out and converted to arable. Pesticides and herbicides became widely available, and the use of chemical fertilizers massively increased (Shoard, 1980; Robinson & Sutherland, 2002; Shrubb, 2003, pp. 170–199). To remain competitive in this new world, moreover, farms continued to grow in size and were increasingly obliged to specialize in either arable land or livestock production. The focus of arable farmers on growing crops, moreover, could now be absolute. The adoption of tractors and the availability of cheap fertilizers ensured that they no longer needed to maintain livestock for manure or for traction: across eastern England in particular, the numbers of sheep and cattle fell drastically, leading to the plowing of meadows and giving further encouragement to the rationalization of field patterns. Elsewhere, ancient pastures were systematically reseeded and the stocking levels on upland moors were significantly increased, with negative environmental consequences.

At the same time, there was a growing concern among the educated and influential over the impact of such intensification on wildlife and visual amenities. Although the principals of spatial planning were firmly embraced in Britain in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act (which made provisions for “green belts” around major urban centers) and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949 (which allowed for the designation and management of National Parks, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, and National Nature Reserves), there were few planning controls on the everyday practice of agriculture in nondesignated areas (Rowley, 2006, pp. 112–114). The 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, however, provided additional protection for the rural environment, while the 1997 Hedgerows Regulations made it harder to remove hedges. Moreover, the 1980s saw the establishment of the county Farming and Wildlife Advisory Groups, and the 1990s saw the development of Biodiversity Action Plans. Of particular importance were the various agroenvironment schemes that were developed from the 1980s forward, as well as the associated proactive role of English Nature (subsequently Natural England) in helping farmers and landowners to increase the wildlife value of their properties and reduce pollution of water supplies and aquifers. These schemes have seen the proliferation of unplowed margins around the borders of arable fields and the replanting of hedges on a significant scale.

English agriculture has thus, in the course of the 20th century, become enmeshed in a complex range of incentives and payments that have sought to sustain incomes, guarantee the production of cheap food, and provide environmental benefits. At this time, with Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union, the fate of farm subsidies, as well as the medium- and long-term fate of the countryside, remain less clear for future decades. All that can be said for certain is that farming will remain, as it has been for centuries, the single greatest influence on the physical form of the English landscape.


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