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At the time of Domesday in AD1086, the population of Devon was estimated as being at best 80,000 people, with the cultivated area amounting to barely half the available land. The remainder being uninhabited moorland, woodland, and heath, almost all of which was technically part of the Royal Forest. The term 'forest' referred to all land which was subject to the Royal Forest laws, and which prohibited assarting (the right of enclosure), hunting, and pasturing. This continued to be the case until 1242, when the men of Devon paid King John 5000 marks to have the county disafforested, up to the 'regards' of Dartmoor and Exmoor which remained part of the forest.

In his monumental account of Devon, Hoskins paints an evocative picture of life in Devon in the late 11th Century.

In the countryside were vast uncolonized stretches between the villages. After three or four hundred years of occupation and hacking at the surrounding waste, the villages of Domesday Devon had cleared no more than a few hundred acres around about them. Villages were small and isolated, linked to each other by tracks or roads which were little more than bridle-paths. There was no industry in Devon other than the small household activities such as pottery and cloth making; there was little or no mining; trade was negligible. About half the county lay waste in moorland, woodland, heath and marsh. Large areas were completely uninhabited.

The next three centuries was a time of great change in the rural landscape, with farming becoming the dominating factor in most people's lives, with most of the peasants working on the land on thousands of newly created farms. The farms were generally much smaller then, and the peasants rarely owned the land they worked on, everything they owned, their food, homes, and animals all belonging to the Lord of the Manor. In return for this land, they worked on the Manor lands providing their Lord with free labour, food and service whenever demanded. Many struggled to produce enough food to feed their families, much less fulfil the duties required of them from their lord. The peasants were not free to leave the manor and were required to ask for permission. To gain freedom a peasant had to save money for his own land or marry a free person. Although they could not be sold as if they were slaves, they were in reality, little better than slaves.

The 11th to 14th Centuries were a period of growth, both economically and with regard to the population. However with the arrival of the Black Death in AD 1348 this was to change. By the time the plague had started to recede in 1350, a population of 5-6 million people in 1348 had fallen to an estimated 3 million, and in Devon the population had fallen to 73,000, leaving many farms in the area deserted due to lack of tenants to occupy them. Peasants fled their fields leaving their crops to rot, and livestock was left to roam unattended. The monk Henry of Knighton declared;

"Many villages and hamlets have now become quite desolate. No one is left in the houses, for the people are dead that once inhabited them."

This population drop was led to a major change in the structure of the Rural Society, with a growth in the number of 'yeoman farmers' (land-owning peasants) along with a move away from arable farming and into pastoral farming. The landscape began to fill with flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle became more common, being both more profitable and requiring a smaller labour force than arable cultivation. Another result of the decrease in pressure on available land was that holdings became amalgamated and blocks of strips were enclosed.

By the early nineteenth century, Devon Farmers fell into two distinct groups; one consisting of men with small holdings, little elevated above the condition of labourers; and the other a group of men holding larger farms, running up to 300 acres. Formerly leases for life were very common here, but lately these have been replaced by leases for years. Although the terms of these new leases are generally regarded as being short, they are infinitely preferable to the tenancies from year to year. The wages of labourers vary from between 7s to 9s per week, with three pints or two quarts of cider daily, the men bringing in every morning their wooden bottle to receive their day's allowance. Task work is now much encouraged, and affords better wages to the industrious. The cottages of the labourers are many of them constructed of red earth, mixed with straw, commonly called Cobb, and covered with reeds or straw thatch. The chief corn markets locally are Exeter and Barnstaple.

To make the best use of the natural climate and soil of the county, the farmers of Devon had introduced a system of farming which combined dairy farming, the breeding or feeding of cattle, sheep, and pigs, the growing of corn, and the production of cider, and generally combined on each farm. The arable land was generally well managed, well and deeply tilled, and manured sensibly to preserve the condition of the soil, with the value of artificial manures also beginning to be recognised. Two horse ploughs are now common, along with light carts and wagons. Oxen are still used occasionally in the plough, two young ones and two old ones being yoked together, and will plough an acre a day, as well as being cheap to feed. Sixteen to twenty-four bushels of wheat per acre may be reckoned an average produce for North Devon, and thirty-two bushels of barley. Stubble turnips are occasionally taken; but the general practice is a bare winter fallow in preparation for a root crop.

In North Devon out of every four acres of land used in farming, three are used for grazing and only one for arable use. The number of cattle bred in the county is considerable, and the breed most esteemed is the North Devon, which is most prevalent in that district, though in general request throughout the county, on account of its great superiority for the purposes of grazing or draught. The Devonshire cattle are for the most part sent in droves from various parts of the county, to the graziers in Somersetshire, Essex, etc, who fatten them for the London market. The native breeds of sheep are the Exmoor, the Dartmoor, and the Old Devonshire dim-faced nott sheep; the two former are the most prevalent, but the latter has been much improved by a cross with the New Leicester: the Dorsetshire breed prevails in that part of Devonshire which borders upon that county. The wool is the chief object of attention with the owners of the forest or moorland flocks, which are large and numerous. It is a remarkable circumstance, that the rot has never yet been known to have originated with sheep constantly pasturing upon either of the forests of Dartmoor or Exmoor. The total stock is estimated at about 700,000, of which about 200,000 produce heavy fleeces of long wool. There are to be found in this county both polled and horned sheep. The polled sheep, generally called nott, or knott sheep, are of a large size, with long combing wool; shear on average about eight pounds each. More attention has hitherto been paid to the wool, than to the carcass. The sheep run from fifteen to thirty pounds a quarter; the average about seventeen pounds a quarter, nine to ten pounds of fat they sell the wool to combers, and at the fairs in the neighbourhood, at from five pence halfpenny to sixpence per pound.

The native Devonshire hog grows to a large size, and is long in all its dimensions, but has been much improved by a cross with the Leicester breed, and a further cross with the Chinese, which have considerably reduced its size, and rendered it much more profitable.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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