1. Fields should have names not numbers.
The names of particular fields may have remained the same for centuries or have altered over time as the fields have changed size or ownership. They may describe prominent features, the soil, wild life, vegetation, tell us the name of the landholder, or how to work the land, if only we can translate them.
Field names are known by many farmers and landholders, they can be found in Title Deeds, on the Tithe Maps of the 1840s held in County Record Offices or on individual farm maps. Some new farm managers however, are dispensing with field names and replacing them with numbers. There is not much that is descriptive or poetic about Field I, Field 2, Field 3 – demanded by Ministry of Agriculture Census Returns. Fields become mere commodities, not a part of our continuing history.
2. Fields should be enclosed by boundaries of the local idiom.
Hedgerows, banks, stone walls, stone hedges, rhynes, ditches, streams and rivers are all potential stock-proof barriers or are territory markers which have been used over the centuries. Farmers used whatever was locally available to enclose their fields and particular ways of laying hedges, constructing stone walls or dredging ditches evolved in different localities, reinforcing local distinctiveness. Countryside Stewardship grants are available for restoring neglected or damaged hedgerows and grants are also available for the maintenance of drystone walls and banks.
Old hedges, banks and ditches are particularly valuable for wild life. “Over 600 plant species, 1,500 insects, 65 birds and 20 mammals have been recorded at some time living or feeding in hedgerows.” (Biodiversity: The UK Steering Group Report, 1995). Barbed wire fences are of much less use as they do not provide food, shelter or protective routeways, although they are used by birds (such as stonechats and owls) as songposts, perches and anvils.
3. Fields should be capable of multiple use
If the land is carefully tended it can fulfil many different functions at the same time. Fields can produce food, yet allow people to walk through them, wild life to forage in them and history to show through them.
4. Fields should embody history as well as present day uses.
The sizes and shapes of fields vary all over the country – regional and local patterns reflect different and particular histories.
Field monuments, such as long barrows and stone circles, accumulated remnants of ordinary farming activities, such as ridge and furrow and dew ponds, are all important
5. Wildlife should be at home in fields.
Farming and recreation should accommodate nesting birds, breeding hares and hawking dragonflies. Short term crop maximisation should not be a farmer’s objective. Getting the best from the land must include minimising the risk of crop failure by designing systems that work with and through nature by building in diversity. Monocultures are inherently unstable, demanding heavy inputs of chemicals. They deplete the soil and are vulnerable to disease and pests.
The effect of harvesting on nesting birds and small mammals can be devastating. Some birds sitting on nests will not desert them, roe deer fawns and young leverets freeze and are lacerated. The lack of cover makes what wild life remains suddenly vulnerable to predators such as weasels and owls.
There are ways of avoiding decimating wild life – such as delays in cutting, marking nests, using flushing bars and harvesting from the centre of fields outwards, allowing escape routes and providing cover for the animals to hide in. A system of mixed farming gives wild life the chance to move to fields that are not being harvested.
The widespread change from spring to autumn cereal sowing has deprived birds, such as finches, linnets and corn buntings, and small mammals of winter feeding grounds in fields of weedy stubble. They have also dispossessed some farmland birds of nest sites. For example, skylarks prefer to nest in immature crops that are less than 30cm high. By spring, autumn, sown crops will have grown too tall to attract them.
Barns and other buildings should incorporate nesting and roosting places for owls, house martins, swallows, swifts and bats.
I come from haunts of coot and hem,
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.
‘The Brook’, Alfred Lord Tennyson.
6. Give them a rest – let the fields lie fallow.
There are well tried ways of maintaining the fertility of the soil without the use of artificial fertilisers. Crops, followed by grass and/or clover, and then allowed to lie fallow from time to time provide a rotation which benefits nature – unlike the vagaries of set-aside.
7. Fields should provide shelter, shade and sustenance for stock.
Lack of tree cover or shade from hedgerows can result in farm animals suffering from exposure and sunburn. Providing stock with shade and shelter is a part of good husbandry. Not to do so is inhumane. Seasonal increases in DV light (summer and January/February ozone hole) and increasingly surprising weather, demands that we think more, not less, about these things.
In the hot summer of 1995 pigs became irritable owing to the lack of shade. Pigs (which have been bred to be less hairy) lack sweat glands and have a poor internal system of temperature regulation, hence their need to wallow in mud to keep cool. Some farmers have even had to resort to dowsing them with sun tan oil because they haven’t been able to give them shade or mud.
A traditional mix of herbs and grasses such as crested dog’s-tail, quaking grass, sweet vernal grass, devil’s-bit scabious, great burnet, chicory, ribwort plantain and wood cranesbill provide stock with a variety of foodstuffs including minerals and trace elements which are not found in fields containing one or two grasses.
8. Fields should not be sprayed with harmful chemicals.
Holistic agriculture should be more actively encouraged and larger grants should be made available for organic farming.
The widespread use of pesticides and herbicides has destroyed the wild flowers and insects on which birds feed. Many farmers have come across dead hares in crops after spraying with Grammoxone (they found Round-up was more benign). Broad spectrum insect and weed killers used in arable farming (a third of agriculturalland is arable) should be replaced by pest specific sprays, by providing beetle banks, field margins, buffer strips, hedgerows and trees.
It is better still to dispense with all pesticides and herbicides and to work with nature by encouraging the natural enemies of pests. Organic farms provide much better habitats for wild life than intensively farmed land.
Medicines given to animals can also be harmful to wild life. For example, slow-release worm boluses given to cattle can remain active in their dung and wipe out the insects that rely on it for food. These medicines, along with pesticides, may have contributed to the decline of swallows, stone curlews and bats in recent years – there are just not enough insects for them to feed on. At the very least, these drugs need to be made environment friendly. Organic farmers use homeopathic medicines when they need to, but on the whole their animals are more robust. They are kept outside and are frequently moved to different ‘clean’ fields around the farm, so disrupting the life cycle and build-up of pests. This system maintains smaller fields.
Smaller fields also reduce the need for pesticides because when they are enlarged beyond a certain size natural predators living in the hedges lose their effectiveness.
In 1932 only 120 hectares ofland were sprayed with pesticides in Britain: by the late 1970s it had increased to over 10 million hectares. Since the 1980s the tonnage of pesticides used has slightly decreased, largely because they are more potent and less is needed.
Despite Rachel Carson’s warnings in ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962, the devastation that pesticides and herbicides have had on wild life is only just being widely acknowledged. “The average British consumer ingests more than 40 different pesticide residues every day”. (Liz Hunt, The Independent 9/4/96). The repercussions for human health are not yet fully understood.
9. A number of fields in each parish should be left undrained and unfertilised.
Millions of pounds have been spent on field drainage, digging ditches and lowering water tables. Summer droughts are leading some landholders to regret having done this. Birds such as swallows and house martins need mud for nest building and ponds to hawk over for insects. Snipe, redshank and woodcock need damp areas in which to feed.
Most wild flowers thrive on land which is low in fertility. (This is an extraordinary quality which we seem to have overlooked). They get smothered by crops and coarse grasses which benefit from the fertilisers and compete with them. There are few fields which have not been fertilised, so it is absolutely vital to conserve the ones that are left.
Purple moor grass and rush pastures which occur on poorly drained acid soils in lowland areas of high rainfall, and water meadows, have declined drastically owing to agricultural reclamation. Parish Councils or local societies should talk to farmers to identify such fields, which could be purchased for the community.
10. We need more community fields where people can walk and play.
People who live in intensively farmed countryside often have fewer safe and convivial places to walk in than urban dwellers. Some fields could welcome people at specific times of the year to avoid disruption to wild life, crops or livestock. Others could be leased or purchased by parish councils for year-round use; or access agreements could be negotiated with landholders in return, say, for help with hedge laying or fencing.
Those who love fields and every briar in the hedge dislike to see them entered irreverently. Field and Hedgerow, Richard Jefferies.
In December the stubble nearly is
Most loved of things.
The rooks as in the dark trees are its friends
And make part of it…
‘In December’, Ivor Gurney
11. Field springs must be protected.
Springs are magical. We used to be in awe of them and value them as symbols of purity and life as well as sources of water. They often indicate the junction of different rocks.
The provision of piped water to virtually every household and many fields has made us complacent and wasteful. We would be wise to revere springs once again, to work for the careful use of water, for aquifer recharge and constant monitoring of the water table.
12. Fields should host the optimum number of wild plants and animals commensurate with good husbandry.
Silage making is much more detrimental to wild life than hay making. Grass for silage is cut periodicalJy from April to November, repeatedly destroying breeding insects and ground-nesting birds such as the yellow wagtail. Hay cut late in June / July gives the plants a chance to set seed and birds and animals to rear their young. Few hay meadows remain, yet the demand for rich hay from horse owners is high. Wet hay can be cut and stored in black polythene for cattle in early winter.
Wide field margins should be left for wild life to escape to during and after harvest.
Stocking levels need careful monitoring. Over-grazing leads to fewer wild flowers and insects and trampling on nesting birds. Under-grazing leads to the growth of vigorous plants that shade out the low growing species.
13. Seasonal festivities should be enjoyed in fields.
Traditional festivals such as Easter, May Day, Rogation Day, Midsummer Day, Harvest celebrations and Guy Fawkes Day have all been held in fields with the blessing of landholders. Some fields have celebratory names – such as Paste Egg (Lanchester, Co Durham), May Day Field (Preston, Lancs), Maypole Meadow (Newnham, Glos), St John’s Field (Walkern, Herts) and St John’s Ley (Ashley, Cambs) – because they were places where Easter egg rolling, May Day festivities and mid-summer bonfires were held.
We need landholders to encourage these and to create new events with their neighbours – such as celebrating the return of the swallows.
14. Fields should produce food for local markets.
Too often food travels hundreds of miles from the producer to the consumer. This is often unnecessary, creating air and water polJution, accidents, noise and vibration, and the call for more aeroplanes and roads. It also affects the type of crops we grow. For example, apples that travel and store well are grown at the expense of tastier delicate varieties that have a short season.
At one time every town had its fruit and vegetable market. The countryside came to town. Farmers gathered together and talked with each other and their customers. Councils should encourage the provision of local produce markets to cut down food miles and to build relationships with local growers. If we do it here, the local economies and cultures of other countries will be more likely to survive too.
15. Fields should provide wholesome food that is humanely produced.
Wholesome means nutritious food that is free from herbicide and pesticide residues, hormones, antibiotics and genetic manipulation. The demand for cheap food has resulted in life being cheap too – people and animals being iIJ-treated. This demeans us all. Short cuts have led to disasters such as BSE. If we ate less meat we wouldn’t have to grow so much animal fodder and we could produce more food directly for human consumption. Eating more vegetables enables us to grow more on less land, or less intensively.
16. Stock should be adapted to local conditions and climate.
Over the centuries farmers have selectively bred varieties of cattle, sheep, pigs and horses to make the best of local conditions. Many of these rare breeds thrive on local herbage.
Modern commercial types of cattle need lush grass liberaIJy fed with fertilisers. They aren’t hardy and need to be over-wintered or permanently kept indoors. Breeds such as Welsh Blacks and GaIJoways are more adapted to winter rain and cold and thrive on poorer soils.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust say that during this century, 26 breeds of native large livestock have become extinct and a further 60 are seriously endangered. The livestock industry is now dominated by a small number of breeds which have been developed for intensive systems of production. Even the Hereford, an English breed of beef cattle so successful that it can be found all over the world, is under threat. This important native breed is reduced to a population of maybe 400 genuine English cows. Most animals classified as Herefords – some 7,000 in Britain – are of a divergent type, reimported from North America.
17. Fields should provide wild foods for local foragers.
Footpaths in fields give us the opportunity to gather wild fruits such as blackberries, sloes, hazel nuts and field mushrooms. Gathering wild foods gives us another reason for going for a walk and for wanting our food sources to be looked after. It keeps local knowledge about the uses of plants and recipes alive and it helps us to stay in tune with the season’s differences. We need to know that sprays have not drifted from adjacent fields and we need to leave plenty for wild life as well.
We spray the fields and scatter
The poison on the ground
So that no wicked wild flowers
Upon our farm be found.
‘Harvest Hymn’, John Betjeman
18. Fields should provide stimulating and interesting places for domestic animals to spend their time.
We have learnt that most zoos are bad places for wild animals and yet we continue to pen domestic animals and to reduce their fields to featureless ‘cages’.
Animals need trees to gather under, to rub against, hollows to shelter in, water to wade in. They respond to stimulation, to a varied and interesting environment.
19. Gates and stiles should be locally distinctive.
At one time every county had its own gate pattern. The village blacksmith or carpenter made gates for local n’eeds from local materials, and the need for wood kept the hedgerows and woodland in good heart and local wisdom alive. Carefully maintained, these gates will last a lifetime, but factory-made metal and wooden gates have priced out local labour and now only a few gate patterns dominate.
When replacing fences, stiles, gates or signposts, land managers and councils should demand designs and materials to reinforce local identity along with local jobs and knowledge.
20. The network of footpaths through fields should be protected.
Our pattern of footpaths both illustrated and symbolises rights of passage created by generations of ordinary people going about their everyday business. That footpaths are an inheritance to be cherished simply for their commonplace qualities and because they are everywhere may seem odd – but for those who are landless and for those who care about the wholeness of the countryside, the intricate network of common paths provides the only vital popular link with land and place. To lose a footpath is to lose an ancient right hard won and to let down our forbears and our children.
21. Fertilisers must be prevented from leaching into watercourses and aquifers.
The use of nitrogen, phosphates and potassium on field crops is still rising. (Over 2 million tonnes of fertilisers are used annually in the UK). Much of the nitrogen applied to fields is not taken up by crops and runs off into rivers and lakes causing explosions of algal growth whose demand for oxygen suffocates fish and other wild life.
Consumers are having to foot a £121 million bill each year for the removal of agricultural pollutants (including silage and slurry) from water supplies. Whatever happened to rotational cropping with nitrogen-fixing legumes such as clover, peas and lupins which are less costly for the farmer and the environment? Landholders should leave riparian buffer strips 5 – 30 metres wide to minimise the risk of water pollution and encourage plant and animal life along water courses. This will certainly help otters and water voles, who have suffered greatly from denuded riverbanks.
22. Cliffs and quarry faces in fields should be left to reveal the geology.
These exposed rocks are often the only clues to the detail of the underlying strata. Small disused quarries help us to understand the landscape and provide safe roosting and nesting places for birds and bats and a variety of conditions for particular plants. These places should not be used for waste disposal, but left for nature to reclaim and as reminders of previous uses.
23. Fields should be free from contamination.
Occasional catastrophes have resulted from the burial of toxic chemicals in fields. The BSE crisis has revealed that fields can be sprayed with blood and guts from abattoirs without a waste disposal licence. Meanwhile much useful domestic vegetable matter is burnt or dumped in infill sites which could be collected on a much larger scale and composted for use on fields.
As organophosphorus sheep dips are dangerous to use and easily contaminate watercourses, their use should be banned.
24. No more virgin grassland should be ploughed.
Old meadows and pastures that have never been ploughed are often full of wild flowers, insects and microfauna and should be protected. Their assemblages of plants and creatures have settled into a long-term stability with particular ways of farming. As forage, this may prove the richest source of trace elements. Only 12,000 hectares are left in England and Wales – 97% disappeared between 1930 and 1984.
When a pasture is ploughed for the first time, a substantial amount of nitrogen is released which may be leached into groundwater – another good reason for leaving it alone.
25. More fields should be available for small-scale food production.
Allotments, smallholdings and council-owned farmland for new entrants to farming should be more readily available to those who want to grow their own food and produce it for local sale. Preference should be given to those who will farm the land organically, conserve wild life and history in the landscape and encourage access and educational activities. Low-impact dwellings on smallholdings may prove more benign than a single season’s pesticide use or the erection of an intensive beef unit.
26. Soil erosion in fields should be prevented by hedge retention, contour ploughing, direct drilling and mulching.
As the weather becomes more erratic and extreme, hedges will be increasingly important for preventing erosion on light, peaty or sandy soil, or in the uplands where fields are overgrazed. Hedges on sloping land have often been planted at critical places to prevent the downhill drift of soil. When these are removed and the land is ploughed, water erosion and landslips often follow. Friends of the Earth estimate that soil erosion in England and Wales costs between £23.8 – £50.9 million a year.
27. Trees of the field should be conserved.
Single trees in fields, old ‘parkland’ and wood pasture are declining. It is estimated that less than 10,000 to 20,000 hectares of parkland and wood pasture remain intact. We should be recreating these in our community forests and beyond.
Old, isolated trees in fields should be venerated; they are often magnificent specimens, having had the space for their canopies to spread. They are rich habitats for insects, lichens and fungi; stock love them for shelter, shade and browsing. They may mark ancient boundaries or be landmark trees such as old gospel oaks.
28. Hedgerow trees should be encouraged.
Hedgerow trees are declining due to hedge removal, road widening, over cutting, root severance by ploughing, drought and old age, and there are not enough young trees being allowed to grow to replace them. Saplings can be tagged and saved from the flail. Leaving more land unploughed beside the hedge helps trees and wild life. At one time our hedgerows used to be alive with the blossom of wild and cultivated fruit trees. Apart from their beauty, they are a valuable food source for wild life, and a gene bank on which to draw to breed new strains with qualities such as resistance to disease. Hedgerow fruit trees are often specific to place – damsons in Shropshire, Aylesbury prunes in Buckinghamshire.
29. Hedgerows and banks should be retained, especially ancient boundary and parish boundary hedges.
Many boundaries are very old, especially parish boundary banks, hedges and ditches which may have been in existence since Saxon times. A thousand or more years of history means they are rich in wild life as well.
New hedges will take a millennium to become this rich and yet hedgerows are still being removed. Between 1990-93, 11,160 miles were lost every year. This has decreased to 2,230 miles annually, but this continuing destruction clearly demonstrates how common sense is still being sacrificed for short-term gain. According to the DOE, some 42% of British hedges, or about 95,500 miles, are ancient and/or rich in wild life, but all hedgerows contribute to field patterns and benefit wild life.
The Devon Hedge Group has found that their hedges only need cutting once every three years to produce thicker, bushy growth, with more flowers, berries and nuts for wild life.
If they are not laid, hedges should be cut in rotation at varying heights, long after the berries have been eaten in late winter and before the nesting season.
30. Field ditches and banks should be managed for wild life.
These are important for creatures such as bumble bees who hibernate in ditch banks, water voles, frogs, toads, grass snakes, water beetles, snails and the 130 aquatic plants that frequent ditches.
Ditches should be cleaned out in the autumn from one side only in rotation about every 5 years. Landholders should leave an uncultivated margin on both sides of the ditch at least one metre wide for wild plants and wild life to colonise. This should be increased to a minimum of 10 metres if pesticide sprays are used.
31. Conserve and create ponds and dew ponds.
Old maps show that in some places almost every field had its pond. These were either natural or spring fed, or made to provide water and cool corners for stock. The provision of troughs with piped water made these ponds redundant. Many were filled in, or have just silted up naturally – depriving frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies and many other species of habitats. All our amphibians have suffered a dramatic decline in their populations – even the common frog is no longer common. About one million rural ponds have been destroyed since the turn of the century – a loss of 75%. Recreate ancestral ponds and /or make new ponds in field corners.
32. Maintain a healthy soil.
Soil is a living thing. We cannot construct it. An inch of top soil takes about 500 years to accumulate. Worms and the assemblages of creatures which help ·in its creation need more care.
According to the Soil Association’s book “TheEarthworm”, 28 species of earthworm have been identified in Britain. It has been found that soils with earthworms drain 4 – 10 times better than soils without them. The organic grower will try to have at least one million worms to the acre.Fertile soil should have more than 12 worms in a spade full.
33. Fields should be protected from air-borne pollutants.
Fields beside roads which are grazed or cropped should be protected from the deposition of lead emitted from car exhausts, by the creation of thick hedges and shelter belts.
The lead pollution from vehicles on motorways can travel about 50 metres on either side of the road. Should we be eating food grown so close to major roads and industrial sites? We need to know exactly where our food comes from – to be able to trace it back to the farm and to the field where it was grown.
34. Fields should be sheltered from noise pollution from heavy traffic and from light pollution.
Dutch ornithologists have found that birds within two miles of busy roads were unable to hear their own singing. The noise prevents them
from marking out their territories or attracting a mate. Breeding is sharply reduced up to a mile from even ‘relatively quiet’ roads, carrying 10,000 vehicles a day.
Hedges and hedgerow trees surrounding thick gabions will help to muffle the noise, but we should also be thinking of ways to reduce the traffic. Glow worms may be declining because of light competition in the breeding season, and greater use of external lighting is preventing us from seeing the stars.
35. There should be a presumption against building on green fields.
Green fields are not ‘sites’, they are places. Over centuries they have gathered meaning, fertility and potential. This cannot be re-created (look at the best open-cast restoration to see this). We should look harder at ways to reuse our existing buildings before we rush into covering over fields.
36. Playing fields should be protected.
Many playing fields and school grounds have been sold by local authorities and schools in recent years (the National Playing Fields Association calculate that at least 5 are threatened with development each week). This deprives children and adults of places to play and open spaces close to home. Most existing playing fields are as dull and featureless as high tech barley fields. Hedges should be planted, or trimmed less frequently. Areas of long grass and wild flowers could relieve the municipal blandness and benefit wild life.
37. Fight for battle fields.
Battle Fields are part of our history and heritage, yet even important battle fields are being lost to roads and development. Registered Historic Battle Fields should be open to the public (Waterloo attracts 400,000 visitors a year), at least during part of the year, and protected from development – they are, after all, burial fields too.
38. Create fields in towns and cities.
Christchurch Meadows, Oxford and The Backs in Cambridge, show that it is perfectly possible to have grazed fields in cities. Parks don’t have to be just grass and flower beds. You could walk through fields on the way to work in the centre of town.
39. Fields that have been sources of inspiration to writers, poets, composers and artists should be conserved.
The beauty, intricacy and history of our fields and downs have fuelled the imaginations of most of our creative writers, artists and
musicians. Some have been inspired by the idea of fields in general, others such as D.H. Lawrence, Richard Jefferies, John Clare, John Betjeman, A.E. Housman and Laurie Lee, VS. Naipaul, Penelope Lively, Paul Nash, Samuel Palmer and Edward Elgar by particular fields – often close to where they have lived.
The field on Broom Hill, from which Housman could see his “blue remembered hills” of Shropshire, still survives – now adorned with a BBC television mast and hemmed in by the M42 and MS.
Fields such as this should be cared for so that we can all share the source of the artist’s inspiration.
40. Fields should grow a range of crops and different varieties
Growers should sow different varieties of crops to safeguard the genetic base and to suit local conditions. The Irish potato famine happened because the few varieties of potato that were grown succumbed to potato blight in 1846/7. If a range of varieties had been grown then some may have been resistant to it. Commercial growers tend to stick to a few safe varieties of fruit and vegetables that have a long shelf-life, depriving us of diverse tastes and flavours as well as storing up vulnerability to disease.
Grass is also grown as a monoculture. “More than 50% of all pastures are intensively managed (often comprising only ryegrass).” (CPRE/WWF 1996).120 species of plants have been recorded in a single 2.1 hectare hay meadow in Worcestershire.
41. Fields should feast our imaginations.
Fields should be places where we can dream dreams, where nature and culture can feed our curiosity and aspirations.
These feet must not break the flapping arrow-shaped leaves of the wild arum, as I clamber over a dog-gap in the hedge to the open fields, for its hopes are my hopes under the wide sky.
The First Day of Spring, Henry Williamson.
Celebrating and conserving fields