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Herefordshire Agriculture


The earliest inhabitants of Herefordshire were a wandering race hunting for animal prey and gathering wild seeds, berries, fruit and plants. These hunting groups changed their settlement patterns depending on environmental and climatic changes, so they would go where the weather and hunting were more conducive to survival. Gradually (c.8500-7500 BC) the climate in Herefordshire began to get warmer and new plants and animals began to colonise the land. These included species of birch, willow and aspen, as well as red deer, wild oxen and wild pig. The hunting groups became more settled and regular trading and hunting patterns were developed. By the end of the Mesolithic period communities had developed, many had made the transition from hunting and gathering to farming as a means of food provision, and a small-scale agricultural industry had been formed.

The Neolithic period of the Stone Age, which ran from c.4,000 - c.2,000 BC, was the period when agriculture was introduced extensively to Britain and began to replace the gatherer-hunter system. Evidence from c.4,000 BC shows that the Neolithic communities had developed a system of small "allotments" throughout Western Europe. In Britain, although much of the land was still very densely wooded, areas for farming had been cleared and domesticated sheep, cattle, pigs and corn were being imported, increasing the range of provisions that farming could supply. Pollen diagrams and alluviation studies suggest that most of Herefordshire would have still been densely wooded at this time, though agriculture and wood pasture clearance had begun at the beginning of the Neolithic period and was well established by the end.

It was during the Bronze Age (c.2,000 - c.800 BC) that the landscape became comparatively treeless and open, as people utilised the landscape for grazing, arable and ritual purposes. As the population was constantly rising this would have put a great strain on resources and more forest would have been cleared to meet the demand. Agricultural activity was intensified and a greater range of more sophisticated tools began to be developed. The rich agricultural potential of the Herefordshire basin was not fully recognised in the Bronze Age with the majority of settlements and barrows occurring on the outskirts; however, our distribution maps may not reflect the true situation as farming will have destroyed many sites.

During the Iron Age the settlement type changed to larger communities living in hillforts. The hillforts of Iron Age Herefordshire are numerous. They are usually an irregular oval enclosure on a hilltop, covering an area of up to 50 acres in extent. If these hillforts are regarded as being of a domestic rather than defensive nature, archaeologists have estimated figures of 75 to 100 people for every acre covered by an Iron Age hillfort. If this is correct then the population of Iron Age Herefordshire may have been as much as 30,000 people; this is a great deal larger than the 1086 Domesday Survey estimates for the county (see John and Margaret West, A History of Herefordshire, Phillimore, 1985, p.20). These "domestic" hillforts would have needed to farm large areas outside of their defences in order to feed their population, perhaps even several thousand acres. As livestock were treasured possessions it is likely that they would have lived within the hillforts.

Eventually Celts settled in the area and introduced the first enclosed fields. Then came the Romans with their vines and heavier draught cattle (from which the Hereford cattle are thought to descend). The Romanisation of Britain brought about many changes in agriculture. The Tribute Tax, which meant that conquered communities had to provide corn for the Roman soldiers, would have meant an increase in the working of arable land. As a result rotary querns were more extensively used and corn-drying ovens, like the one discovered at Sutton Walls in Marden, were introduced.

The Romans were followed by the Anglo-Saxons who brought better, more adaptable cattle. The Saxons also developed the three-field system, which was later to become the basis of medieval agriculture. The basic three-field system involved a rotation of wheat or rye planted in the autumn, followed 18 months later by a spring-sown crop of barley, oats, peas, beans or vetches and then a year of fallow (where the ground was left uncultivated in order to recoup nutrients). The fields themselves were divided into furlong strips, each under the control of a family or individual, which were redistributed each year to ensure each family had the same advantages. Outside of this system the land would be common grazing and woodland.

By the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 Herefordshire was a highly-wooded county, as in all the areas of England surveyed the only four records of assarting (the clearance of wasteland before being brought under plough) were in Herefordshire. As the only feed for livestock over winter was hay, much of the livestock was slaughtered and the meat preserved before winter.

In the late Middle Ages villagers started to rationalise the field strips by purchase or exchange, and under Acts of Parliament some enclosures took place in 1607 and 1609, 1779, and between 1797 and 1812.

In 1855 a writer named Camden noted that the county was good for corn and cattle feeding, whilst Dr. John Beale in 1657 distinguished a number of agricultural sub-regions in the county, including "shallow and strong land about Lemster", whilst around Bromyard there was a "cold air and a shallows barren soyl". Towards Ross he noticed "a shallow hot sandy or strong rye land ... exposed to a changeable air from the Black Mountains". He also noted that the plain of Hereford was the best wheat-growing area, with good grazing land on the banks of the River Frome, and badly-drained land near the River Wye.

The lack of decent navigation on the Wye, along with the absence of a good road system, proved to be a considerable barrier to the export of produce from the county. For many years Bristol was the chief market and goods were sent down the river Wye to Chepstow (at certain times of year when it was navigable) or sometimes by packhorse to Monmouth and then on by ship. Some produce was sent by sea from Bristol to London, and most often it was the better-quality cider.

Cattle were mostly driven overland to market in London, and there were two droving routes that passed through the county. The northern route led through Pembridge, Eardisland, Leominster and Bromyard to Worcester and the southern route went from Rhydspence through Willersley, Hereford, Tarrington and Ledbury to Tewkesbury. Droving tended to be a seven day a week business, so much so that in 1817 drovers were convicted for profaning the Sabbath when they drove cattle through Mordiford.

Hops grown in the east of the county were mainly sold in Worcester, and production gradually increased up until the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), after which it began to decline.

Herefordshire had also become noted as a pig area, for they were often fattened on windfall apples and other edible waste as a result of the county's booming cider industry.

Water meadows were fairly common in the county, and were often found adjacent to mills of one sort or another. A water meadow was an ancient system of encouraging the growth of grass before the growing season to provide stock with an early feed. Water is diverted from the river by means of carriers to irrigate the meadow, preventing the ground from freezing. Flooding is controlled by a series of sluices, which divert the water through narrow head mains, over the meadow and into the wider drains. Hay could be taken in the summer, after which the meadow could be flooded (floated) again to encourage grass growth for late grazing. Owing to high labour costs, water meadows became uneconomical to maintain and few are still operational. Beside the river Lugg at Hereford, recently much-contested ground, dole stones still mark different holders' strips.

The normal Herefordshire rotation of crops on the clays was fallow, wheat, peas or beans, wheat (which gave about half the yield of the crop two seasons before), barley and clover, followed by sheep after the barley had been harvested. Following the sheep a mowing of clover would be taken, and then the cattle would follow on. In the fallow year the land would be ploughed several times. The wheat seed used for sowing would often be soaked in brine or urine (from livestock) first so that the smaller, imperfect grains would float to the top, the good grains were then dried in powdered lime and stored for later use.

In the early 1800s rented land in Herefordshire would fetch around £1 per annum for the best arable land, £2 for best meadow and £4 near a town. As for the agricultural labourer, he worked long hours for low pay - these wages were especially low in Herefordshire due, in part, to its remoteness. During the Napoleonic Wars the average budget for a family with four children shows that yearly earnings were just under £31, mainly generated by the man but supplemented by the rest of the family. This did not cover the yearly outgoings of £35, of which over half was spent on bread, flour and oatmeal, around one-tenth on bacon and pork, and the rest on other foods, rent, wood, clothes, births, burials and sickness.

In the 1790s there were bad harvests and as a result more potatoes were grown in the county to insure against further bad harvests. As poverty increased the Speenhamland System was introduced to subsidise wages, which allowed a man 3d and 1d for every other member of the family for every penny that the price of a loaf of bread rose above one shilling. This system also gave direct payments to certain categories of people.

Agricultural profits began to rise after 1808. The fall in corn prices after 1812 helped further to relieve the poverty of the labourer, and consequently in the 1830s Herefordshire was less affected by the rick burning and rioting which was the response to mechanisation in other areas. In fact, there were only two cases recorded in the county - one lad of 17 was deported for seven years for a case of rick burning and a 20-year-old tailor was convicted of sending a threatening letter to John Monkhouse of Stow Farm, Whitney on Wye, and deported to Botany Bay, Australia for 14 years.

The pattern of agriculture differed in various part of the county, often reflecting the variety of soil types found. In the north-west with its limestone, woods and lush valleys, the average farm size in 1875 was around 78 acres. This farm would have allocated land to arable, cattle and sheep, as well as a few pigs and some poultry. In the Black Mountains and the valleys to their east, most of the land was put down to grass or rough grazing. In the 1880s the average farm size was 58 acres with additional grazing on the commons. They grew wheat and oats, and the majority of livestock would have been sheep with a few cows. The Ross area was predominantly arable, with its light sandy soils giving good drainage. Many acres of rye were grown and the arable and fallow were grazed by local Ryeland sheep, who took their name from the crop. Wheat and barley were also grown in this area. The Central Herefordshire Plain contained a fair amount of grassland, but it also grew wheat and hops and had orchards. By the 1880s and thereafter the area put down to hops decreased, in part because it was felt that hops took all the manure to the detriment of other crops grown there. In the east of the county the average farm size was 81 acres, still with a fair acreage of hops and a reasonable amount of arable land. The grassland was devoted to sheep breeding and the fattening of store animals.

During the 1820s labour was still poorly paid, but ten years later the price in part was determined by comparison with the neighbouring industrial area of Glamorgan. The general diet was still confined largely to bread and potatoes and some bond labour still existed whereby the wife and children of a labourer were expected to work for free. Such conditions led to migration from the county from about 1850 onwards. Most people headed to London, Lancashire or South Wales, where the growing industries offered employment. By 1871 the rural population of Herefordshire - at 173 per 1,000 acres - was below that of any of its neighbours.

By the late 1870s a farmer who rented 300 acres would expect to make around £550 after rent. Out of this he would pay £95 in tithes, £95 in income tax, around £40 in land and window tax, £61 in malt tax and £30 for horse and gig levy. This would leave him with around £230 net profit.

The disastrously wet summer of 1879, when half the crops failed and liver rot decimated flocks of sheep, was followed by yet another wet year in 1881 and poverty was once again a problem. This time agricultural trade unions were started in response. The main one was the Agricultural Labourers' Union (ALU) in Warwickshire. Demands were made for wage increases and complaints were voiced over the long hours. There were also calls for more meat provisions and better housing for workers. The meetings of the ALU were often attended by a representative of the British and Foreign Colonial Emigration Society, which encouraged emigration to Canada and the USA. The rural population, already down to 123,000 in 1871, dropped further to 108,000 in 1937 and as agricultural labour became scarce so the wage rate rose.

By the end of the 1800s further changes in agricultural practices were introduced. Cabbages, with turnips and potatoes, were commonly grown as a catch crop between the rows in the hopyards. Oilseed rape was a widespread crop in 1801 and potatoes were also being grown to feed to pigs. Strawberries too began to make an appearance at this time.

Government enquiries in 1907 by the Board of Trade and by the Board of Agriculture in 1912 produced average wage figures of between 17 and 20 shillings per week over the country, compared with only 13 shillings in Herefordshire. In 1914 Sidney Box started a movement in the country which proposed strike action to demand a minimum wage of twenty shillings for a sixty-hour week, one shilling a week extra at threshing time, 4d an hour overtime and time and a half at harvest. In response some farmers and landowners raised the labourers wage by 3 shillings a week. The outbreak of World War I led to the cancellation of any planned strikes and once again the war pushed agricultural prices up which led to higher wages. At the end of the war tariff protection was introduced and marketing boards were set up for hops, milk, pigs and bacon, which gave some stability to the prices of these products.

In the period leading up to World War II scientific advances were producing new varieties of grass, better protection against animal diseases and new machinery. The area under plough increased, especially during the war when more home-grown food was required. After the war governments encouraged farmers to produce more food by setting up an extensive system of grants which subsidised intensive production of livestock and cereals. This production was encouraged further when the UK entered the European Economic Community (then known as the Common Market).

Today, many farmers are still looking for ways to diversify their business. In Herefordshire this has meant the conversion of redundant buildings into houses, holiday lets and farm shops. There has also been an increase in pick-your-own fruit enterprises, as well as areas of farmland being put aside for recreational activities such as fishing, go-karting and camping.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]