What was a golden age for fieldsports was a depressing time for British farming, although all those unproductive acres might inadvertently have resulted in maximising sporting potential
While fieldsports enjoyed a Golden Era, farming suffered the Great Depression of British Agriculture. Tim Field looks back on farming’s history during the Golden Era, and how the depression successfully maximised sporting potential.
From farming’s history, to its future. Tim Field considers how in a post-Brexit world, we have the opportunity of a lifetime to set agricultural policy. Read post-Brexit agricultural policy: the opportunity of a lifetime.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION OF BRITISH AGRICULTURE
Crimson hillsides of sainfoin fed stables of horse power and sustained fertility in the soils. Estates supported huge communities with labourers who worked the land. In the early and mid 19th century rural landowners were the wealthiest class in the wealthiest nation, growing nearly 10 million acres of cereals. However, by the late 19th century the days of wealth and prosperity in farming had slipped away as we entered the Great Depression of British Agriculture. The social and physical landscape changed substantially.
The problems were primarily market driven, originating from the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 (simply, a lift on food import tariffs in the name of free trade). However, it was improvements in shipping and mechanisation of foreign agriculture later in the century that saw British corn and meat prices suffer. The trade of manufactured goods and the cheapness of imported food were no doubt popular with the growing industrial, wage-earning communities but such was the crisis that unfolded in agriculture the first Government Board of Agriculture was formed and a Minister appointed in 1889. The cheapest corn prices in a century led to the poorer lands reverting to grazing; but shirking the expense of grass seed and cultivation, marginal arable areas were allowed to succumb to rough pasture. By 1900, the area under wheat was just 50% of the 1872 acreage. Even beef and sheep were struggling due to imports, with overseas markets able to feed stock at lower cost than our domestic producers.
The late 19th century was a difficult time for the wealthy and landed gentry who could no longer boast about their vast acres of productive agriculture. Perhaps this acted as a catalyst, with them focusing on the pursuit of increasingly fine sport that their unproductive farmland must have offered. The fallow lands presented wild game with abundant cover, while the affordable labour and lean times must have favoured efficient vermin control, game and land management to provide optimum sporting potential.
VIABLE AGRICULTURAL ENTERPRISES
Of the more viable agricultural enterprises, market gardening and milk production made the most of fresh produce’s inability to be transported any great distance. For horticulture, soil fertility was well served by the abundant supplies of stable manure that could be obtained from the ever-growing industrial towns. By the end of the 19th century, farm labourers were driven from agriculture into any other employment available, often in the towns. Only the most tenacious farmers succeeded, however, and during the First World War a large amount of skills, muscle and horses were lost to the front line. These challenges notwithstanding, by 1917 the war effort did spur one million acres of UK soil back under tillage and allotment numbers nearly trebled, as our reliance on food imports became the target of German U-boats.
While advances in transport engineering made overseas markets closer and more competitive, the revolution in certain farm practices, equipment and innovation made floundering British agriculture more efficient. Interest in seed breeding and fertiliser additives was stimulated and in livestock, the period saw the birth of a flurry of breed books and societies, established to focus on improvements to genetics and the value of animals.
Horses remained the primary source of power for production, though as steam began to find its way into agriculture it marked the beginning of the end for working horses. The ploughs, rakes, harvesters and rollers improved greatly, too. In 1871, Henry Bamford and his son, Samuel, founded a farm machinery and engine company that rode the crest of a wave for a century; its legacy continues today. The initials of Henry Bamford’s great grandson, Joseph Cyril, are carried on the majority of yellow farm machines today. The Bamford business came of age in 1881 with the introduction of a highly successful horsedrawn mower, the “Royal” No 5 (pictured above). The Royal leant its fortunes to a design incorporating extra-high wheel positioning, “enabling the horse to trot without injury to the machine”.
With modern politics presenting such uncertain times, a number of industry commentators have likened the current rhetoric to the Repeal of the Corn Laws. Could we see history repeating itself? While swamping our nation with cheaper imports from abroad is a genuine concern, the growing favourability of sainfoin, innovation in tillage techniques and the popularity of low-input, grass-fed breeds hint at a landscape that could also support more than just farming. Let us pray that we are not facing another great agricultural depression but, instead, heading into another Golden Era of fieldsports.
Follow Tim and Agricology @agricology