I grew up in the county of Lincolnshire, which even today, in the 21st century, is still mainly agricultural. Its flat fields lend themselves well to the mass production of crops with little natural land remaining as 90% of it is used for farmland. Compared now to my current city life the county seems very reminiscent of times gone by…
As a little girl, I remember witnessing what was almost a second agricultural revolution as the flat open fields made for easy industrialisation methods, large machinery such as harvesters, being gradually introduced. The patchwork system of fields gave way to rolling fields of uniform yellow, oil seed rape, and green, sprouts and cabbages.
As I am sure you’ll know, Britain joined the European Union in 1973. For farmers, this was supposed to guarantee the stability of food production and reduce price fluctuations in farming production, ensuring that farmers received a minimum return for their labour and produce.
This didn’t really happen. I remember seeing gallons of milk being flushed away, some years ago, and everybody must remember the more recent “cows in the supermarket” news item.
With the farming revolution we lost what came to be an important part of the British countryside, the hedgerow.
Hedgerows… similar to the garden hedge but a country variety and integral part of our British countryside, providing both habitat and border…
The Acts of Enclosure, roughly between 1720 and 1840 (must learn to Google rather than relying on memory…) meant that open land, that had previously been available for all to use, for grazing livestock or foraging for food, since mediaeval times and before, was gradually removed from use. Landowners wanted to build bigger and better, more harmonious to the eye and pleasing to the soul and the last thing any designer wanted were flocks of scruffy sheep or inconvenient villages…
To this end, round about 200,000 miles of hedge, mainly blackthorn and hawthorn were planted and mediaeval methods of farming, the strip and patchwork appearance of the country gone. These little smallholdings and former fields are only really visible from the air, ghost traces of footsteps left upon our land.
These hedgerows became home to a whole host of creatures that are now in decline as the cycle of Life turns again. We may think the sparrow population is plentiful enough when we look at our bird tables, but in actual fact, the tree sparrow, distinguishable by its chestnut coloured head, has steadily dropped in number since the 1970’s.
This is due to the habit of now ploughing in Autumn rather than Spring. There is no over-Winter stubble to provide food and shelter, also putting one of our most magical native animals at risk: the hare.
The EU recognised the devastating effect these changes were having on our wildlife and introduced a system of subsidies that meant the farmer could afford to leave some of his hedges in place rather than ripping them up to utilise every square inch of space just to make ends meet.
As the countryside became commercialised, ‘social knowledge’ became lost. I must thank Gary of Fiction is Food for this wonderfully descriptive phrase. It was no longer necessary to wait for the first frost before ploughing as the mechanised drills would tear up the Earth with ease. The simple rule of crop-rotation, one field fallow, one with peas or beans and one with potatoes was no longer heeded as the Earth was battered with chemical fertilisers.
During the 1940’s, the excessive use of herbicides eradicated some of our native wildflowers that had been with us since the Stone Age and which would have been recognised and used by Neolithic farmers. A gentler system of social knowledge, how people could work hand-in-hand with Mother Earth with the seasons, rather than against them, was swept away during the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
Hedge laying and coppicing, basic blacksmithing and make-do and mend. The use of Nature’s bounty to heal and care – time was when every housewife could whip up a cough remedy from elderberries and thyme… Again, nowadays, chemicals rule and these little bits of knowledge past are preserved only by the few, like the lovely Gillyflower of Wood So Wild. Please go and have a look at her blog… wonderful things…
However, as we move further into the 21st Century, people are becoming more aware of what is going on with the Earth. Lost social knowledge is being retrieved in the 21st Century guise of ‘re-cycling’ and set forth again.
We must look to the animals though, as our native British wildlife no longer thrives. Hedgehogs are in difficulties – although the one at the bottom of our garden is fine! Bird populations are altering – witness the parakeet colonies in London.
Perhaps the most potent symbol of change for me is the hare, a creature of myth and magic, fable and witchcraft… I have been lucky enough to see a hare, both in the wild and in my father’s surgery.
Different somehow and wilder than cuddly bunnies, magical and fierce, hares were thought to have been first introduced in England by the Romans… truly magical creatures, long eared and long legged, graceful symbols traditionally associated with the moon, femininity and by extension, witches. I remember my first sight of a hare was when I was younger, about ten or so, when we were out with the horses. It was lolloping, loose limbed and effortless across the field and although I’d never seen one before it was instantly recognisably different from a rabbit.
Then, not long after this, my father had one brought into the surgery (he was a veterinary surgeon). It had been hit by a car, and was, surprisingly, unhurt, just stunned.
It hunched, fiercely, in the kennel, rolling its great round eyes imperiously and scuffling its long, powerful hind legs. My father soon pronounced it free from concussion or any other injury and delegated its release to one of the nurses.
Hares are not so common now, another victim of the changing face of our countryside; but they live on in myth and folklore, their essence captured in jewellery and ornaments and sketches of memory.