Welcome to our unique history of the countryside series. The above and below links will transport you through 15,000 years of our countryside's history. Each time period contains information on population, crops, livestock, farming systems, woodland & hedges, social economy and climate.
Each time period has custom 3D images and animations for you to view and download.
Snow and ice had covered much of the countryside for the preceding 10,000 years and only a few alpine plants lived in the short summer seasons. During periods of thaw, meltwaters would rearrange parts of the landscape as they gouged out and then deposited frost weakened material.
About 13,000 years ago the last ice age came to an end. As the snow and ice retreated the ground beneath was exposed. Initially the landscape was barren but increasingly supported life as the first colonising plants took hold. The landscape was similar to the tundra of the high arctic today.
As the ice sheets withdrew the climate became warmer and the countryside began to support the trees and shrubs that colonise bare and infertile ground. The earliest to take up residence were birch, aspen and sallow. These were followed by hazel and pine.
Around 8500 BC there was a rapid warming in the climate and this provided ideal conditions for the development of deciduous woodland which started to displace the existing pine woodland. By 7000 BC the landscape had become densely covered in woodland - known as the wildwood.
Around 8,000 years ago the temperature warmed again and sea levels rose, separating the UK from mainland Europe. With a warm and wet climate, dense climax woodland consisting of lime and oak developed covering much of the UK.
About 6500 years ago the first farmers started clearing the native wildwood and converting the land to agriculture. Trees were killed by "ringing" (either with an axe or by animals browsing) and eventually the stumps rotted away allowing farming to begin.
By 4,000 years ago farming systems were well developed and extended to moorland areas that even today we do not farm. Wildwood remained throughout the countryside but was being cleared rapidly on lighter land to make way for farming.
By about 700 BC the countryside in many parts of the UK was already owned, managed and planned in much the same way that it is now. Little wildwood remained and the land resource was well planned with field systems in rotation, pasture and coppiced woodland.
By 100 AD, Roman culture was becoming widely adopted throughout the UK with Celtic chiefs in particular coming to realise the advantages of Roman citizenship. The Romans introduced many innovations to agriculture with improved ploughs, scythes and even a corn harvester but these were of secondary importance to the development of a demand led economy that helped push agricultural output to new peaks.
By 350 AD, most of Britain was closely assimilated into the Roman empire. The countryside was now completely cleared of wildwood and the landscape was settled in an ordered way. Large estates dominated the farming system with cattle ranching, sheep and arable production.
By 700 AD the countryside had changed dramatically from the Roman period. Towns had become de-populated and the majority of the population now lived in small farmsteads on a subsistence basis with scrub and woodland regeneration common.
Anglo Saxon rule was replaced by the Normans in 1066 and the Domesday Book that followed in 1086 provides a unique record to assess society, agriculture and the countryside at large. Although the political upheaval of the Norman conquest was dramatic, long running changes had already developed in the late Anglo Saxon period and these were shaping the structure of the countryside.
After three centuries of sustained growth in farming, population, trade, and taxation, crisis was imminent. Increasing demand for food pushed farming to the margin, uplands and woodlands were brought under the plough. The open field system that had provided sustainable production came under huge pressure as peasants struggled with less land and farmsteads became ever smaller. The structure of the countryside was changing again.
The prolific growth of three centuries that ended around 1300 AD was followed by a century of collapse. The great famine of 1315-22 and the plague of 1348-50 (known as the black death) decimated the population and altered the face of agriculture. Both events affected the whole of Northern Europe and had a profound impact on both social structure and the countryside.
By 1600 AD the economy remained essentially agrarian with the majority of the population still engaged in subsistence agriculture, however recent population growth had created pressure in the countryside with food shortages and a migration to the towns had occurred. As agriculture now occupied nearly all utilisable land, efforts were directed to improving yields through enclosure and enhanced fertility.
The period from 1600 to 1750 AD saw a dramatic change in the nature of agriculture in the UK. Subsistence farming which had dominated for much of the preceding 6000 years gave way to an industry in which innovation and technology became the drivers of output.
The industrial revolution transformed the landscape and led to Britain becoming the world's first urban nation. Railways, new roads and an improving transport infrastructure provided fresh food for fast growing towns while imported produce from around the world provided a greatly more diverse diet. Increasingly however, the countryside became a remote and distant environment to an industrialised society.
Another technological revolution was underway as agriculture pursued increased output and greater security of supply. With rationing still fresh in the public's mind, the industry responded to government initiatives derived from the 1947 Agriculture Act. Improved stock and plant breeding, the greater use of fertiliser and pesticides and a move away from more extensive forms of production saw yields rise.
A conservation headland in spring barley rich with biodiversity - part of agriculture's attempt to supply the "public goods" sought by a consumer, stake holding society.
Farming and the Countryside
- What's going on and Why www.ukagriculture.com
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