Farming History - introduction

A short history of farming

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Farming not only produces the food we eat, it created the countryside we live in and is changing it, even as you read these words. The classic British landscape of small fields, farms and villages linked by sunken lanes was carved out of the Wildwood which once covered much of Britain by people earning a living from the land, first by hunting and then by farming. How did this happen?

Neolithic polished stone axes were more effective than flint
axesAs the ice retreated north at the end of the most recent glaciation, 15,000 years ago, it left behind a landscape of tundra and rock. At this time the North Sea did not exist: plants, animals and people could travel on dry land from mainland Europe to Britain. Trees moved north across this land bridge and, as the climate warmed, a forest spread over much of lowland Britain. Deer, elk, aurochs (the wild ox, ancestor of domestic cattle), wolves and other animals followed the trees, and groups of Mesolithic hunters followed their quarry into Britain. Wood pasture provided valuable timber and wood for fuel as well as 
grazing for livestock.These hunters began the long process of clearing the forest by using flint axes and fire to create grassy clearings in which deer and other grazing animals would come to feed. (There is evidence that upland peat moors such as the Yorkshire Moors formed after these clearances, nearly 10,000 years ago.) Their movements across the landscape established tracks and routes such as the Icknield Way.

The idea of Agriculture and the technology needed to keep domestic animals and to plant, harvest and process crops spread slowly north and west across Europe from Greece, reaching the coast of France and Belgium about 6,000 years ago. The first signs of farming in Britain soon appeared, ranging from the the seeds of emmer and einkhorn wheats and barley to the marks left by an ard (the first plough) and the stone querns on which grain was ground to flour. It would have been relatively easy to cultivate the areas of grassland which had been grazed by deer and other wild game, but more land was always needed as yields fell without fertilisers and the population grew. Sharp polished stone axes felled trees faster than flint, and the surrounding undergrowth was burnt or browsed to death by livestock and wild game. Crops were grown for a few years on the new fields then, when yields dropped, the farmers moved on to clear more of the forest. Grazing animals prevented the forest reclaiming the old fields while their droppings fertilised the soil; early farmers would soon have learned the value of manure and the need to rest fields as fallow to recover fertility.

Finds such as ox goads and iron plough tips
provide information about  early agriculture.More food meant more people could live in the same place for longer, so settlements formed. Permanent boundaries marking land holdings first appeared in the Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago. In the Iron Age people were living in permanent houses, farming land divided into fields and storing their harvest for use through the year. By the time the Romans arrived, large parts of southeast England were already a patchwork of hedged fields, with farmsteads and villages connected by tracks and droveways.

Sarah Wroot 2000