1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Recent British Agriculture: Progress during the Eighteenth Century

(Part 5)


Progress during the Eighteenth Century

Before entering upon a description of the agriculture of Great Britain at the present day, it may help to set matters in a clearer light if we take just so much of a retrospect as will serve as a back-ground to our picture.

At the beginning of the 18th century the agriculture of our country was still of the rudest kind. With the exception of certain parts of England, the land was still for the most part unenclosed, the live stock of each township gazing together, and the arable land being occupied in common field or run-rig. The practice of following annually a portion of the arable land and of interposing a crop of peas betwixt the cereal crops, was becoming a common practice, and was a great improvement upon the previous and yet common usage of growing successive crops of white-corn until the land was utterly exhausted, when it was left to recruit itself by resting in a state of nature, while other portions were undergoing the same process. Clover and turnips had been introduced before this date, and were coming gradually into cultivation as field crops in the more advanced parts of England. Potatoes were commonly grown in gardens, but had not yet found their way to the fields.

The gradual advance in the price of farm produce soon after the year 1760, occasioned by the increase of population and of wealth derived from manufacturers and commerce, gave a powerful stimulus to rural industry, augmented agricultural capital, and called forth a more skillful and enterprising race of farmers. The arable lands of the country, which, under the operation of the feudal system, had been split up into minute portions, cultivated by the tenants and their families without hired labour, began now to be consolidated into larger holdings, and let to those tenants who possessed most energy and substance. This enlargement of farms, and in Scotland the letting of them under leases for a considerable term of years, continued to be a marked feature in the agricultural progress of the country until the end of the century, and is to be regarded both as a cause and a consequence of that progress. The passing of more than 3,000 inclosure bills during the reign of Geo III., before which the whole number was but 244, shows how rapidly the cultivation of new land now proceeded. The disastrous American war for a time interfered with the national prosperity; but with the return of peace in 1783, the cultivation of the country made more rapid progress. The quarter of a century immediately following 1760, is memorable in our agricultural annals for the introduction of various important improvements. It was during this period that the genius of Bakewell produced such an extraordinary change in the character of our more important breeds of live stock; but especially by the perfecting of a new race of sheep --- the well-known Leicesters --- which have ever since provided such a boon to the country, and have added so much to its wealth. Bakewell’s fame as a breeder was for a time enhanced by the improvement which he effected on the long-horned cattle, then the prevailing breed of the midland counties of England. These, however, were ere long rivaled, and have now been entirely superseded by the shorthorn or Durham breed, which the brothers Colling obtained from the useful race of cattle that had long existed in the valley of the Tees, by applying to them the principle of breeding which Bakewell had already established. A more rational system of cropping now began very generally to supersede the thriftless and barbarous practice just referred to of sowing successive crops of corn until the land was utterly exhausted, and then leaving it foul with weeds, to recover its power by an indefinite period of rest. Green crops, such as turnips, clover, and ryegrass, began to be alternated with grain crops, and hence the name alternate husbandry, by which this improved system is generally known. The land was now also generally rendered clean and mellow by a summer fallow before being sown with clover or grasses.

Hitherto the husbandry of England had been very superior in every respect to that of Scotland. Improvements now, however, made rapid progress in the latter. Mr. Dawson, at Frogden, in Roxburgshire, is believed to have been the first who grew turnips as a field crops to any extent. This enterprising farmer have heard of the success with which this crops was cultivated in certain parts of England, took the precaution of seeing for himself the most approved mode of doing so before attempting to introduce it on his own farm. He accordingly went to Leicestershire, and presenting himself to the celebrated Bakewell in the grab of a Scotch ploughman, hired himself to him six months in that capacity. Having in this thoroughly practical way acquired the knowledge he was in quest of, he told his employer (who would fain have retained him longer) that it was full time for him to be home to his own large farm. The season was too advanced to admit of his doing more that year than sow a few experimental drills, but the very next year he is said to have sown 70 acres. We have been unable to ascertain the exact date of this occurrence, but it is on record that as early as 1764 Mr. Dawson had 100 acres of drilled turnips on his farm in one year.

A few years after this the Messrs Culley --- one of them also a pupil of Bakewell --- left their paternal property on the bank of the Tees, and settled on the Northumbrian side of the Tweed, bringing with them the valuable breeds of live stock and improved husbandry of their native districts. The improvements introduced by these energetic and skillful farmers spread rapidly, and exerted a most beneficial influence upon the border counties. An Act passed in 1770, which relaxed the rigour of strict entails, and afforded power to landlords to grant leases and otherwise improved their estates, had a beneficial effect on Scottish agriculture. From 1784 to 1795 improvements advanced with steady steps. This period was distinguished for the general adaptation and industrious working out of ascertained improvements. Smll’s swing plough, and Meikle’s thrashing-machine, although invented some years before this, were now perfected and brought into general use, to the great furtherance of agriculture. Two important additions were about this time made to the field crops, viz., the Swedish turnip and potato oat. The latter was accidentally discovered in 1788, and both soon came into general cultivation. In the same year Merino sheep were introduced by his Majesty, George III, who was a zealous farmer. For a time this breed attracted much attention, and sanguine expectations were entertained that it would prove of national importance. Its unfitness for the production of mutton, and increasing supplies of fine clothing wool from other countries, soon led to its total rejection.

In Scotland, the opening up of the country by the construction of practicable roads, and the enclosing and subdividing of farms by hedge and ditch, was now in active progress. The former admitted of the general use of wheel-carriages, of the ready conveyance of produce to markets, and in particular, of the extended use of lime, the application of which was immediately followed by a great increase of produce. The latter, besides its more obvious advantages, speedily freed large tracts of country from stagnant water, and their inhabitants from argue, and prepared the way for the under-ground draining which soon after began to be practised.

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