XIX. IMPROVEMENT OF WASTELANDS
Introduction. Improvement of High-Lying Sheep Pastures.
Notwithstanding the great progress which agriculture has made, and the immense amount of capital, energy, and skill which for generations has been brought to bear upon the improvement of our soil, there are still large portions of the surface of our country lying in their natural state, and usually classed under the head of Waste Lands, in contradiction to those which are under tillage, or have at some time been subjected to the plough. Of this (so called) waste land but a limited portion is absolutely unproductive. Much of it is capable of being converted into arable land, and doubtless will in course of time be so dealt with, but in the meantime this class of waste lands, and very much more that will never be tilled, is of great and steadily increasing value as sheep-walks. Even for this purpose most of it is susceptible of great improvement, and would well repay it. These lands are comprised under the following descriptions: --- 1st, Those hilly and mountainous parts of Great retain which, from their steep and rugged surface and ungenial climate, are unfit for tillage; 2d, Those which lie uncultivated owing to natural poverty of soil, its wetness, or the degree to which it is encumbered with stones; 3d, Bogs and mosses; 4th, Lands so near the sea-level as to be more or less liable to be submerged; and 5th, Blowing sands.
Improvement of High-Lying Sheep Pastures
The lands referred to under the first of these heads are of very great extent, embracing the whole of the mountainous parts of Scotland and Wales, and much of the high grounds in the north of England and South of Scotland. These high grounds afford pasturage for innumerable flocks of sheep of our valuable mountain breeds. The business of sheep-farming has received a great stimulus of late years from the ever-growing demand for sheep to consume the green crops of arable districts. These upland sheep-walks are accordingly rising in value, and their improvement is becoming every day of increasing importance. The improvement of these hill grazing embrace these leading features, viz., drainage, shelter, and enclosure. Until of later years our hill flocks were peculiarly liable to the rot and other diseases arising from the presence of stagnant and flood water upon their pastures. Many grazing that had at one time an evil reputation on this account now yield sound and healthy sheep, solely from the care with which they have been drained. To guard against the pernicious effects of flooding, the courses of brooks and runnels, which in heavy rains overflow their grassy margins, are straightened, deepened, and widened, to such an extent as is required to carry off all flood water without allowing it to overflow. Some grounds are naturally so dry that this is all that is required to render them safe. But in general the slopes and hollows of hilly grounds abound with springs and deposits of peat, and with flats on which water stagnates after rain. On well-managed grounds such places are covered with a network of open drains or shallow ditches, about 30 inches wide at top and half as many deep, by which superfluous water is rapidly carried off. The cutting of these drains costs from 8s. to 10s. per 100 rods (of six yards each). In pastoral districts there are labourers who are skilled in this kind of work, and to whom the laying out of the lines is frequently entrusted, as well as the execution of the work. On very steep places they are careful to avoid a run directly down the declivity, as a strong current of water in such circumstances gutters the bottom of the drain, and chokes those below with the debris thus produced; but with this exception the drains are always run straight down the greatest slop of the ground. When such drains have been properly made, it is necessary to have them statedly overhauled and kept in good order.
Next in importance to drainage is good and sufficient shelter. This, in the absence of natural coppices of birch or hazel, is provided by means of clumps and belts of fir plantation. These should always be of such extent that the trees may shelter each other as well as the sheep. Trees planted in a mass always shoot up faster than in narrow strips, and restrain the snow-drift which passes through the latter. A shepherd who knows the ground well should always be consulted about the sites of such plantations. The conditions requisite are, that the soil be such as trees will grow in; that it be so far removed from any brook, ravine, or bog, as to be accessible to the flock from all sides; that there be rough herbage, such as heather, gorse, or rushes, near at hand, which the sheep may be able to get at in deep snow; that it be contiguous to the sheep-walk, and placed so as to afford defense against the most prevalent winds. A less costly shelter is formed by building what are called stells, which consists of a simple dry-stone wall enclosing a circular space twenty yards or so in diameter, with an opening on one side; or forming a cross, in one angle of which the sheep find shelter from whatever point the wind blows. A haystack is a necessary adjunct to such defenses.
It is a further point of importance to have such grazing surround with a ring fence, consisting either of dry-stone walls, turf walls with wire a-top, or a simple wire fence. This prevents trespass; and the sheep having freedom to range, without watching, up to the boundary, more of them can be kept on the ground than when they are ever and anon turned back by the shepherd. These needful and inexpensive improvements are now generally attended to over the wide pastoral districts of the Scottish border counties. In the remote Highlands they are still much neglected. There are, however, few agricultural improvements which yield so quick and certain a return.
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