Making hay

30th June 2006 at 01:00
From the Wildwoods of 13,000 years ago to our modern patchwork of fields, Ben Aldiss tells the story of Britain's changing landscape

onsider this: more than three quarters of the British countryside is farmed, yet the average arable farmer employs just a single labourer. In addition, most of the population is concentrated into towns nowadays, our children glued to televisions and computer screens at weekends. The result: a landscape almost empty of people.

We're in danger of losing our grip on this marvellous heritage, quite simply through lack of experience of it. But as a resource for teachers it is second to none. Between the rugged heights of the North and West and the rounded contours of the South and East, Britain unfolds to present an array of vistas, astonishing in their diversity for so small a country.

However, even before risk-assessments and the prospect of litigation, teachers were a cautious breed, preferring the familiar bounds of the classroom to the great outdoors, so the combination of bureaucracy and a few high-profile tragedies in recent years has threatened to seal the fate of field trips forever. All is not doom and gloom though: there are enough enlightened schools, organisations and individuals around the country to ensure that "Real World Learning" is here to stay and maybe even flourish (see next page).

Curriculum connections

One of the stumbling blocks preventing effective use of the countryside by schools is, paradoxically, its bewildering complexity: how do you match a trip to a farm with the national curriculum? The answer is to treat your day out as an all-round experience, not just a narrow look from the point of view of, say, biology or geography or history.

After all, the landscape is an amalgam of these and every other subject taught in schools. To understand our heritage we need to see the whole picture - a picture that started with the Wildwoods, 13,000 years ago and ended with modern Britain, a patchwork of habitats firmly embedded in an agricultural background.

After the ice retreated at the end of the last glaciation, Britain gradually became clothed in trees, on which Palaeolithic and Mesolithic man made little impact. This Wildwood, as Oliver Rackham calls it in The Illustrated History of the Countryside, only started to fragment as Neolithic communities settled in it around 6,000 years ago. Being herders and crop-growers, they needed space for their sheep and their wheat - both organisms adapted for wide-open, treeless habitats, characteristic of the steppes of Turkey in which they evolved. Wheat will not survive under the shade of trees and sheep are far from happy in woodland, so Neolithic man had a problem.

A cut above

Until recently it was thought that he simply cleared the trees, but a moment's thought will highlight the improbability of this. Even assuming that Neolithic axes were considerably better than the earlier models, cutting down a mature tree, rendering it into pieces suitably small and then digging up the stump would have been a mammoth task. No, it seems much more likely that the original spaces in which agriculture was established arose with the help of a fungus - the Neolithic forebear of Dutch elm disease.

The Wildwood consisted of mixtures of trees, some of which - like the elm - spread by suckering to cover quite large areas. Disease would have struck with deadly efficiency at regular intervals, leaving whole stands of stricken trees to die, rot and fall, leaving ready-made enclosed clearings that man expanded into settlements.

So it was that Britain's agricultural landscape slowly took shape.

Initially, the early settlers were as much woodsmen as farmers, using their considerable skill in woodcraft to create all they needed in the way of housing, fences and implements.

As the population increased and metal axe-heads replaced those of stone, tree-felling gathered momentum and the countryside was cleared to the extent that open spaces exceeded the area still under forest.

Hedging your bets

With the concurrent development of better cereals and livestock by selective breeding, agriculture became the very fabric of life. Flocks and herds were corralled in fields bounded by hedgerows that were created by leaving the edges of woods intact. Such hedges were lovingly tended, not simply to maintain them as boundaries, but to encourage them as providers of food: berries and nuts, mammals and birds, fungi and insects all thrived in these sunny remnants of the ancient Wildwood.

Coppicing was practised in the woods and this provided wood of various useful sizes, while prolonging the life of the trees and creating a complex ecosystem teeming with a wildlife population that included nightingales and dormice. To prevent deer, pigs and cattle from eating the shoots growing from freshly coppiced trees, the trees were pollarded, so that the useful growth was higher up, out of the reach of herbivorous mammals.

Ship-building, too, relied heavily on hedgerows (see "Beat about the Bush", TESTeacher, December 2, 2005).


By the Middle Ages, agriculture in lowland Britain had settled into a predictable pattern, with the open-field or strip-farming system predominating. Large open spaces of common land were divided into rectangles or "selions" each about half an acre in area and measuring one furlong by two perches (220 x 11 yards, or 200 x 10 metres). This length was the distance a team of eight oxen could haul a mouldboard plough before needing a rest.

In practice, the rectangular strips developed an S-shape over the years as a result of the difficulty in turning the plough at the headland of the selion. Gradually, too, each selion acquired a ridge at one edge caused by the turning of the earth by the ploughshare in the same direction season after season. Many remains of this system of open-field farming can still be seen, as ridge-and-furrow systems in pastures and modern arable fields.

They are especially visible in aerial photographs.

From the Middle Ages onwards farming gradually became more efficient as the open-field systems were enclosed, but it was the infamous Enclosure Acts, which were brought in between 1760 and 1830, that changed the face of much of lowland Britain so dramatically.

By the mid-19th century, the huge open-field systems of the Midlands were gone, as landowners were required to rationalise their scattered holdings and put them all in one place, surrounded by a physical barrier, usually a hawthorn hedge. Apart from the hugely negative consequences of this for agricultural labourers, the geometry of the countryside was irrevocably altered too: unshapely corners were trimmed and sinuous field edges straightened in an attempt by the government to step up food-production in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

The legacy of this rationalisation can clearly be seen today in the physiognomy of Britain's agricultural landscape. The big, straight-edged fields of the so-called "Planned Countryside" contrast markedly with the smaller, more crooked ones of a more ancient times, so characteristic of the South-west and of the far Eastern corner of England. These areas both somehow escaped "sanitisation" in the great 19th-century push for efficiency, and remain largely intact, despite the fashion for grubbing out hedges after the Second World War.

If the social consequences of enclosure were unfortunate, there can be no denying its effects on productivity: Britain's farming system took off.

Arguably the Industrial Revolution would not have occurred without this step.

Debate still rumbles about the causes and timing of the Agricultural Revolution; it is generally reckoned to have taken place between 1750 and 1850. Apart from the enclosures, two other key elements in precipitating it were undoubtedly selective breeding and new cropping practices - especially the planting of turnips and clover.

The magnificent seven

Though they lived and worked at different times, seven men can be considered to be instrumental in cementing these practices into a coherent farming system. The seed-drilling machine invented by Jethro Tull (1674-1741) may not have been the first, but it provided the model on which other farm machinery was based a century later.

Lord Townshend of Raynham (1674-1738) - known as "Turnip Townshend" - and Thomas Coke (1752-1842) (pronounced "cook" and known as Coke of Norfolk, later becoming the First Earl of Leicester of Holkham) were both hugely influential.

Lord Townshend advocated the use of turnips as a means of reducing the amount of fallow - and hence unproductive - land.

For centuries, ploughing an uncultivated field had been the only sure way to rid it of weeds ready for sowing the following season. Rows of turnips, on the other hand, could be hoed without damaging the underground roots and their luxuriant leaves naturally suppressed weeds.

There was another bonus. however - not only did the planting of turnips reduce the number of fields left uncultivated from 20 per cent in 1700 to only 4 per cent by 1871, it also provided winter food for cattle and sheep, thereby obviating the need to slaughter livestock at the onset of winter when the meagre stocks of hay had been used up - usually by the end of November.

Townshend also introduced the Norfolk four-course rotation, in which fields were sown with wheat, turnips, barley and hay on a four-year cycle.

Coke of Norfolk lived 10 miles from the Townshends and was a champion of improved breeds of livestock and the growing of wheat. He encouraged the dissemination of farming knowledge by hosting agricultural shows and as a publicist of good practice he did immeasurable good.

Arthur Young (1741-1820) was an important pioneer, too. His agricultural writing did much to advance the cause of British farming.

Selective breeding was the province of Robert Bakewell (1725-1795), an innovator in the field of livestock breeding.

Rather than put all his cattle or sheep together and let them mate at random, he carefully chose which bull to serve which cow and which ram to tup which ewe. The results were his New Leicester sheep and Longhorn cattle.

Charles Colling (1751-1836) and his brother Robert (1749-1820) were inspired after a visit to Bakekwell to use scientific breeding methods. As the fashion for fatty meat waned, they responded by producing a much leaner beast - the highly successful Shorthorn breed.

The draining of the fens and their conversion to arable land, together with the reclamation of heath and upland pastures maintained the momentum achieved by the innovations already mentioned.

A modern revolution

Farming today has suffered a crisis of confidence and is moving in a very different direction. In the 1940s the need to feed a large population suddenly came sharply into focus as Hitler tried to starve us into submission. Farmers had become complacent and were jolted into the real world when many of their labourers were called up to fight.

Women in the Land Army did a sterling job and the exigencies of war stimulated the manufacture of machinery and chemicals. Farmers were paid by the government to increase efficiency. Thousands of miles of hedgerows were removed to create more space for crops and to allow access by bigger machines. The tractor replaced the horse, pesticides such as DDT reduced competition from weeds and insects, and for the first time many farms became completely arable as artificial fertilisers reduced dependency on livestock. Sustainability was no longer an issue.

For many years after the war British agriculture basked in the glow of success, but there was a price to pay - and we are only discovering its full import. The inevitable consequence of mechanisation was redundancy: whole farming communities disintegrated. From the mid-18th century when more than 90 per cent of Britons still worked on the land, the stage was reached two centuries later when the figure was a mere 10 per cent and still falling.

Despite this exodus from the land, farmers were producing too much food. In the face of butter and cereal mountains, the European Union introduced compulsory set-aside in its 1992 Common Agricultural Policy. On taking 10 per cent of their land out of production, farmers were guaranteed a bonus payment, while doing their bit to reduce over-supply.

Moving with the times

Other changes have further diminished the standing of agriculture in 21st-century Britain. The wholesale use of chemicals has had a devastating effect on wildlife, bringing farming into disrepute at a time when revenue is at an all-time low.

The introduction of new technologies - especially genetic engineering and modification of crops - has not helped the public face of agriculture, particularly when the appearance of diseases such as BSE and foot-and-mouth seems to indicate a lack of responsibility among the farming community.

Recently, however, British farming has turned another corner and is heading in a new and exciting direction. Last year's CAP reforms have decoupled European farm subsidies from production and environment-friendly schemes are here to stay. This is good news for wildlife and should help farmers too, especially if they can branch out and diversify.

The future of the British landscape depends on our understanding of it.

Schools can play a key role by forming links with farms and conservation organisations, so that children will grow up knowing how important - and how fragile - the countryside is. They may even be inspired to help preserve it. Thirteen thousand years of agriculture is too precious a heritage to lose.

Ben Aldiss is an ecologist with a PhD in wasps and an expert adviser for the Heritage Lottery Fund.He has set up a project designed for Year 9 pupils, called the School and Farm Wildlife Programme.

He lectures in conservation management at Otley College and teaches biology at Thorpe House School in Norfolk. He also runs an A-level biology field course in the Pyrenees.


Among the new GCSE science suites coming on-stream this September is OCR's 21st century science. It includes the additional applied science single award, with an option entitled "agriculture and food". Fifty per cent of the marks for this award are gained through the work-related portfolio, part of which involves the students in creating a work-related report.

Websites and resources

Author of this piece Ben Aldiss has set up the School and Farm Wildlife Programme to engage pupils and teachers with the landscape again. Its website will be up and running soon, email: for more details

Real World Learning Campaign

ACE (Farming and Countryside Education)

Growing Schools

UK Agriculture

The Museum of English Rural Life

Linking Environment and Farming


Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens

Farms for Schools

Farms for City Children

Countryside Foundation for Education

The Country Trust


The Illustrated History of the Countryside by Oliver Rackham Weidenfeld Nicolson pound;12.99

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