16 August 2002

Ridge and furrow comes back to life

The old ridge and furrow

system was a familiar part

of the Georgian landscape

back in the 1820s. But it

is being effectively used

today on a farm run by

the Beamish Open Air

Museum near Newcastle

in County Durham, as

Wendy Short explains

FARMS director John Gall is a devotee of the ridge (or rig) and furrow system. He says the 10ha (25 acres) at Pockerley Manor farm – where the date is permanently set at 1825 – has provided a good, well-drained grass crop for the Teeswater sheep flock. But producing the effect was not that easy, he explains.

"We experimented with a horse and plough but had to give up because it was taking such a long time. Eventually, a contractor with a deep digger plough was hired and he managed the job using three passes, turning the soil into the centre of the ridge."

After investigating the dimensions of the ridge and furrow systems which were around in 1825, Mr Gall found to his surprise that some of the furrows were up to 4ft deep. The general advice seemed to be that on wet land, only a narrow gap should be left between each ridge. He decided to allow 3.6-4.5m (12-16ft) between each furrow at Beamish and to plough to a depth of about 38cm (15in).

The permanent ley mix was sown into the ridge and furrow by hand last autumn and is now well-established, producing a variety of different grass species. But if any grass is to be harvested it will have to be scythed by hand, says Mr Gall. The land is much too bumpy to accommodate a forage harvester.

In times gone by, most of the British landscape was covered in the corduroy pattern produced by ridge and furrow ploughing. One of two effects could be created, depending on the type of animal pulling the plough, he points out.

"The straight ridge and furrow was usually the work of a horse-drawn plough, while the curved effect was produced when large teams of oxen turned at the end of the field, giving the ridge an S-shaped look."

But aside from the fancy patterns which added interest to the landscape, the ridge and furrow had several important practical features.

"It created natural divisions which were used as boundaries when tenants drew lots for a small strip of land within a particular field. And in a wet year, the crop growing on top of the ridge was likely to survive, while in drier weather a good crop could probably be harvested out of the furrow.

"Often people would plant 15 or 16 varieties of corn. Some would be drought-tolerant and others would thrive under wet conditions. This system meant people could hedge their bets so they could be fairly certain of having at least some food during the winter."

By the 1850s, more sophisticated machinery had been developed and steam-driven ploughs were in operation. Gradually, ridge and furrow ploughing went out of fashion.

Slower-paced

Mr Gall readily admits that he was born too late and says the slower-paced version of farming at Beamish museum suits him well. He enjoys studying local history and is proud of the fact that livestock producers in the north-east have been hugely influential in the way cattle breeding has developed throughout the world.

He tells the story of the Collings brothers, who created the Beef Shorthorn cattle breed and produced the famous Durham, or Ketton Ox.

"In the late 1700s two brothers, Charles and Robert Collings, of Barmpton, near Darlington, were studying cattle breeding under the famous Robert Bakewell. Mr Bakewell was an early breeder of Longhorn cattle in Leicestershire and had also produced the New Leicester sheep breed.

"After returning home, the Collings brothers set about trying to develop a breed of cattle which was bigger than any other in existence. In doing so, they created the Beef Shorthorn, which for 140 years was one of the most expensive and sought-after animals in the world. They did this using line-breeding, which fixed genetic traits within families. They would then push prices up by buying a bull from one of these families and restricting sales of its progeny. The brothers also started hiring bulls to other farmers with the option of buying back any high quality stock produced.

"These Shorthorns were the first fat cattle in existence. Before that the breeds had been very lean. But with the industrial revolution, animal grease was in demand for oiling machinery. In those days, the grease worth 50% more than the value of the meat.

"By the 1850s, however, petroleum took over as the greasing agent and fat was no longer quite so desirable. At that point the emphasis switched back to meat production.

Enormous ox

"Nevertheless the Collings main ambition had always been to produce the most enormous ox (or castrated male) anyone had ever seen. And in 1798 they succeeded, breeding an animal that stood 1.8m (6ft 6in) high and weighed 2540kgs (two and a half old tons). The animal, nicknamed the Durham, or Ketton Ox, was eventually bought by a Mr Day.

"He was a travelling showman who toured around the country with the Wonderful Ox, charging people a shilling a time so they could marvel at its size. The ox left in its wake more than 50 public houses called the Durham Ox and there are still 19 of these remaining.

"But after eight years of travelling, tragedy struck and the ox broke his leg while being led out of a horse-drawn trailer. Mr Day was quick to see the potential of this event, however. He put a tent round the animal and charged an extra few pence for the public to see it in its dying moments. He also sold pieces of its hide as souvenirs."