A Green and Pleasant Land - Part 5

Appliance of Science...
The Victorians were to leave other lasting impressions on our countryside. Their quest for new machinery and mechanisation, the 'appliance of science' to agriculture, and increasing influence or organisations such as the Royal Agricultural Society [founded in 1839], had great impact upon rural environments and farming.

By the mid-1830's steam ploughing was in use, and threshing took place in the fields rather than the farmyard by roughly the middle of the 19th century, which meant that the large barns required by earlier generations for storing unthreshed sheafs were no longer needed; modern intensive cereal farming has seen huge grain silos blossoming on the landscape.

Writing in the Kent Herald, in September 1830, a local landowner commented that there were 23 barns in his local parish. He calculated that 15 men would be employed until May in the task of threshing the corn from these barns, earning them from fifteen to twenty shillings a week. Unsurprisingly many of the rural population regarded threshing machines as a threat to their livelihoods and there were frequent outbreaks of civil disorder in which the machines were broken in protest.

From the 1870s until the commencement of the First World War British farming went through unprecedented turmoil. During the early part of this period there were many bad harvests, and the import of wheat, wool and meat from the overseas impacted on farm prices. Tenant farmers - the majority - unable to pay their rents abandoned the land, very much as today. By the time of WWI only a third of Britain's food was produced on these shores, which prompted the government to encourage the nation to 'Dig for Victory'; and several million acres of under-utilised land were brought into production.

Modern times...
The inter-war years brought more misery as farm prices slumped in the 1920s, and many country estates were broken up. War, again, revived land usage, and since WWII farming has largely remained on a secure footing to become a true business - 'agribusiness'. The latter has brought visible changes to the British countryside; the most noticeable being the removal of hedges to enlargen fields so that large-scale mechanised planting and harvesting can take place, aided by pesticides and fertilisers. A field that would once have taken a days to prepare, or sow, or harvest by hand, can now be achieved in hours. Such is the sophistication at the top end of the agricultural industry that computer aided technologies (sometimes GPS guided) can 'map' fields; allowing farmers to deliver extra fertiliser, nutrients or seed depending on the soil quality in different parts of the terrain, and thereby optimise output.

Now, when you next pass through our wonderful countryside on a drive, or explore its leafy lanes on foot, you can be sure that some areas of the landscape around you have played a part in the rich tapestry of social and industrial heritage of Britain. Almost every stone, tree and plant has a tale to tell. Enjoy it.


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