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In Britain, some form of Field System had been in place since the 1st Century and, by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, the Open Field System was the dominant agricultural system used in England. This system operated with the peasants working on land granted to them by a landowner, often a nobleman, and everything they owned, their food, homes, and animals, all belonged to him as Lord of the Manor. They were required to work on his lands providing him with free labour, food and service whenever he demanded, and, in return, were allowed to farm their own piece of land. Many of them struggled to produce enough food to feed their families, much less fulfil the duties required of them by their lord.

Each village would be surrounded by several large open fields, each field containing a different crop as part of a three field crop rotation system. These fields were divided into individually owned strips, whose width was such that one plough team with oxen could plough. At the end of each strip would be a turning space, either a road or a headland. Through repeated ploughing a ridge-and-furrow pattern became evident. A farmer would work a number of strips, though not necessarily adjacent to each other, in one field. This ensured that no single farmer would end up with all the good or bad land. In addition to the three fields, there would normally be common land where the villagers could graze their livestock, woodland for the pigs, and a communal village green for social events. The ploughed fields could also be used for grazing outside the growing season. As populations increased, the available land diminished as more strips were required. Slowly, the open field system became unworkable, and by early in the 12th Century, a movement began towards merging small plots into fewer but larger holdings, which resulted in an increase of power for the landowners.

By the beginning of the 14th Century, a small amount of enclosure began to take place at a local level, then, between the 15th and 18th centuries there was a gradual increase in the amount of land being enclosed. Enclosed literally meant that a field was surrounded by a fence or a hedge. It also meant that the enclosed field was worked as a complete unit and no longer divided into strips, which meant that the existing system of communal exploitation and regulation of the arable land, open pastures, meadows and uncultivated land was gradually replaced by a system of private land management. The community no longer had rights over most of the land, and the poorer members of village society were frequently disadvantaged in consequence. Physically, the great open fields, unfenced and unhedged meadows and pastures, and the expanses of fen, moor, common and heath were divided up into hedged, fenced or walled fields, leaving the land which had previously been open, enclosed.

The reasons for the increase in land enclosure were varied; In England in the 1530s, tithes were reallocated to the Crown as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the land sold off to private owners. Traditionally, wool and woollen products had been one of England's major exports to Europe. As the profit made from the wool trade increased in the 15th century, more land was enclosed to provide larger areas to graze sheep. In the 17th century, it was new farming techniques which forced land enclosure. When fodder crops, such as turnips, were grown in the open field system, communal grazing would benefit other people's livestock. Poor harvests in the late 17th century called for a rethinking of current farming techniques, and the subsequent agricultural revolution sounded the death knell for open field farming in Britain, with new developments in farming practices requiring larger enclosed areas to be workable. The peasants were turned off their land, leaving many people homeless and with no means of making a living the landowners, however, could now farm entire, enclosed fields.

Up until this period, farmers planted the seeds for cereal crops by carrying the seeds in a bag and walking up and down the field randomly throwing or broadcasting the seed on to the ploughed and harrowed ground. The problem with this method was that it did not give a very even distribution. It was not, therefore, an efficient use of the seed and much of it was wasted. Jethro Tull invented a Seed Drill which could be pulled behind a horse. The Seed Drill not only planted seeds at regular intervals but also planted them at the right depth and covered them with earth. Because the seed drill planted seeds in straight lines, a mechanical horse-drawn hoe, which Tull also invented, could be used to remove weeds from between the lines of crop plants. Tull advocated the importance of pulverising (crumbling) the soil so that air and moisture could reach the roots of the crop plants. His horse-drawn hoe was able to do this. He also emphasised the importance of manure and of tilling the soil during the growing season.

Each strip would be cultivated separately by different families who would turn the ploughed soil into the centre of their strip by the continued use of a non-reversing plough, creating over many years raised ridges bounded by deep furrows. The turning of the plough at each end of the strip created the shape in plan of an elongated S-shape. Modern ploughing regimes are more efficient and deeper cutting, removing these features. Following the Romans, early British law required every ploughman to make his own plough, and no one was entitled to use one unless they constructed it themselves! These very earliest ploughs were simple 'scratch-ploughs' and consisted of a frame holding a vertical wooden stick that was dragged through the topsoil.

These were much later developed into 'mouldboard ploughs' which turned the soil in one run across the field, depositing the weeds and undecomposed remains of the previous crop under the soil and raising the rain-percolated nutrients back to the surface. This plough also allowed ploughing while the ground was wet, with the water being drained due to channels which formed under the overturned earth. The mouldboard, carried below the frame, is tipped with a 'share', an asymmetric arrow-shaped device designed to slice through the ground horizontally as it moves forward. It also has a 'coulter', a sharpened blade or disc, attached to the frame of the plough to cut down through the ground, ahead of the share, to also cut deep-set and tough roots. A runner extending from behind the share to the rear of the plough controls the direction of the plough because it is held against the bottom land-side corner of the new furrow being formed. The holding force is the weight of the sod, as it is raised and rotated, on the curved surface of the moldboard. Because of this runner the mouldboard plough is harder to turn around than the scratch plough and its introduction brought about a change in the shape of fields from mostly square fields into longer rectangular "strips".

The first commercially successful iron plough, developed by Stanyforth and Foljambe in 1730, was known as the Rotherham Swing Plough, so called because no depth wheel was used, it was like ploughs before it, constructed from wood. The difference was that the fittings and coulter were made of iron and the mouldboard and share were covered with an iron plate. It was light and durable, and followed the mathematical principles of James Small, who designed a mouldboard that would cut, lift and turn over the strip of earth. It was considered by all who saw it at work to be more efficient as it was light and economical enough in draught to be drawn by a pair of horses. So successful did it prove that it was to remain in use in one form or the other until the introduction of the tractor.

A single draught horse could normally pull a single-furrow plough in clean, light, soil but in heavier soils two animals would often be needed, one walking on the land, and one in the furrow. For ploughs with two or more furrows one or more horses have to walk on the loose, ploughed, sod and that makes hard going for them, and a ten minute rest every half an hour was usually recommended. Further design advances were made during the Industrial Revolution with the introduction of Steel ploughs which were lighter and more durable than iron or wood ploughs. In the 1830's a cast steel plough was designed in America by John Deere, and by this time the hitch, to the draught animals, was adjustable so that the wheel at the front was held onto the ground. The first steel ploughs were walking ploughs, having two handles held by the ploughman to provide a degree of control over the depth and location of the furrow behind the draughting force. The ploughman often was also controlling the draught animals. Riding ploughs with wheels and a seat for the operator came later and often had more than one share.

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

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