Hutholes

Just up the road from our farm is a deserted medieval settlement which some of you will know, called Hutholes.  Thereon a small site are the clear stone outlines of half a dozen buildings, half of them dwellings, and the remainder small barns or stores.

The National Park who manage the site have put up an information board with an artist’s impression of Hutholes Man.  He is thought to have lived here in the 13th and 14th centuries – possibly a little earlier.  Hutholes Man is stocky, and hirsute.  He’s whittling on a stick and tethered alongside him is a patient cow.  His house is not much bigger in floor area than one of the larger hut circles.  But it is rectangular and is clearly a transition towards the longhouse which will develop in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Between the man and his beast there is a small bonfire and the smoke is curling up through the turf roof.

To our modern tastes the life of Hutholes Man must have been nasty, short and brutish – little raised above the level of the beasts with whom he shared his house.  But in his time and locality Hutholes Man must have been a success.  Building 2 or more stone houses would have been the work of two or more generations, and the site was probably occupied for another 100 years after that.

Wherever your eyes take you on the moor above 1000 feet you will see the clear signs of thousands of years of settled occupation, and settled agriculture.

So Hutholes Man founded a dynasty, and has left clear evidence of his life and labours for all to see. How many of us will leave such a legacy?

Hutholes is off the beaten track; a peaceful place like so many on Dartmoor, where one can sit and gaze out over the surrounding moor and hills.  Keith Bungay, a distinguished former National Park officer at Exmoor has described that moor as like an “open history book”.  How much is that equally  true of Dartmoor?  Wherever your eyes take you on the moor above 1000 feet you will see the clear signs of thousands of years of settled occupation, and settled agriculture.

The reaves, the prehistoric field boundaries, march across the open moor in linked geometric systems, some of them running for miles.
Sometimes the prehistoric field boundaries line up with the field boundaries of today’s in-bye land.  Not only is the moor an open history book, but today’s farmers are literally following  in the footsteps of countless generations of their predecessors.

The moor’s open history book also shows the observer the outline of a barrow, or burial chamber on the skyline.  Depending on the state of the vegetation one may pick out hut circles, standing stone rows, and walled pounds or enclosures.

Moving towards more modern times, one might well see medieavel strip terracing, or lynchets; one might see the corrugation of ridge and furrow cultivation, and the distinctive dry stone wall marking the boundary between the newtake or in-bye land, and the common.  This is Dartmoor’s equivalent of the enclosures.

Just before we leave Hutholes Man for good, I like to see him as a signpost, pointing both back to the prehistoric settlers and farmers, and forwards to the longhouse dwellers and the farmers of today. Hutholes Man is a link in a still surviving chain of resilient men and women who have carved a living out of Dartmoor’s poor soil and often unfavourable climate.

It is thought that 8000 years ago most of Dartmoor was covered with trees and people would have hunted wild animals like deer. By about 4000 years ago most of the tree cover had been cleared and Dartmoor had become an important area for the grazing of sheep and cattle.  At the height of the Bronze Age settlement it has been estimated that there might have been a population of between 8000 and 9000 thousand, and possibly twice that number of cattle.

The hut circle dwellers must have been part of an organised confident and powerful society.  How else could they have constructed and left so much monumental evidence of their settlement of Dartmoor.  It is tempting to think of settled agriculture on  Dartmoor as an unbroken line stretching back thousands of years.  But I believe the historical consensus suggests that Dartmoor has actually seen patterns of settlement and exploitation followed by periods of abandonment.  Indeed the system in the first and second millennia BC probably incorporated seasonal abandonment, with populations and their livestock leaving the high moor for the lowlands in winter.  More drastic abandonments of the high moor may have been in re-action to cycles of climate change or disease such as the Black Death.

So I would like to suggest a theme that we might want to return to; the idea that Dartmoor has in its long history seen cycles of settlement, followed by abandonment, particularly on the high moors, and when we come to consider the future of farming we will have to ask if we could be facing a fresh period of abandonment, at least on the high moor.

For all the long years of the hut circle dwellers stretching up to Hutholes Man in the Middle Ages life must have been relatively unchanging.  Improvements must have come painfully slowly.  Local skills, local knowledge, inherited crafts, resilience, self-sufficiency – these must have been the hallmarks for survival on a Dartmoor farm, and to some extent still are.

Medieval period

In the medieval period improvement of the climate prompted the re-occupation of parts of the moor.  Where fields were cultivated this would have been on a collective basis involving a group of farmers who would each work a number of dispersed individual strips within the field.  Most of the central part of the moor would have been what it is today – unenclosed grazing land for cattle sheep and ponies, with rights to use the moor exercised in common.  Indeed in later times farmers in most of Devon would exercise rights to pasture livestock on Dartmoor in the summer.  The sight of long files of cattle trooping up to the moor from the South Hams in May is only just passing out of living memory.

Outside influences would have been slow to affect Dartmoor, not least because of the difficulties of transport.  The packhorse held sway on Dartmoor much later than elsewhere.  Self-sufficiency would have been the core business of all farms.  Today most farms are 100% grassland, providing grazing and conserved fodder (hay and silage) for rearing livestock.  But until after the Second World War all farms would have been mixed, with a balance of arable cultivation and livestock.  On our own farm in 1840 two thirds of the fields were arable; today it is all grassland.  Most Dartmoor farms are small by lowland standards, typically 50 to 70 acres.  But before mechanisation a 50 acre mixed farm would have required considerable labour.  In the middle of the 19th century our own small farm was home to 12 souls; a family of 5 and 7 indoor and outdoor workers.  Labour had to be kept occupied through the short days of winter in hedging, ditching, stonewalling and firewood collection because all hands would be needed for the summer harvest.

As Robin Stanes has shown in his book, The Husbandry of Devon and Cornwall, herds were very small by modern standards.  Most farms would only have had a handful of cows; 20 cattle would have been quite exceptional, whereas today it would be classed as a hobby farm.  The only universal animal, found on every farm and cottage, would have been the pig.

A word about breeds of cattle on Dartmoor.  On the high moor and on the commons today the cattle you are most likely to see will be hardy breeds which do well on sparse rations.  They will be black cattle, Welsh Blacks, and Galloway, or the small and very distinctive Belted Galloway, which are black with a broad white band or belt round the midriff.  The traditional breeds in the in-bye land would be South Devons and the Red Devon.  The South Devon is a large, placid reddy brown cow, good for milk and beef.. I’m told that you can plot a line on a map, and it runs through the northern fringe of Dartmoor say from Lydford to Chagford.  South of that line the farms would traditionally  have had South Devons; north of the line the red Devons.

About a generation ago it became fashionable for British farmers to beef up their blood lines by bringing in Continental bulls, particularly Charolais and Limousin from France.  But if you go to South West France where the Limousin come from there is a theory, and I would love it to be true, which is that the Limousin is descended from the South Devon.  Large swathes of France were under English rule in the middle ages.  We know that Henry V’s army set sail from Dartmouth. It would be natural for English settlers to take their favourite cattle with them to France, so I like to think that when we started to import Limousin cattle in the late 20th century to improve our stock, we were actually bringing the South Devons home after five or six hundred years.

As well as the landscape which has been formed by the labours of all the preceding generations of farmers – the open history book – we have another legacy in the field names.  All Dartmoor farm fields have names, and they are much more user friendly than the OS field numbers that you are required to enter in Ministry forms.  They can also give clues to farm histories.  Some names describe the shape of a field – Long Close or Square Park.  Others describe position – Hind House, Barn Park.  Others tell what the field was used for: Turnip Close ; Mow field or Ox Park.  All these examples are from our small farm. Another very small enclosure is aptly named Starvation.  A further field is called Clay Pit; on the adjacent common clay was dug either for local pottery or building.  Sticky subsoil,  when mixed with sand or gravel from the local river would have produced a mortar for binding the stone walls of the farmhouse, before lime or cement was available.  Another set of fields are called Furze Park – Homer; Middle and Lower Furze Park.  Furze or gorse grows well on Dartmoor, but crowds out grazing, and these field names are probably testimony to a laborious struggle to free these fields from the invasive furze. Similarly with Stone Park; what a labour it must have been to remove Dartmoor’s generous deposits of granite from the fields. Anthony Beard has pointed out to me that there are many local examples of Butt Field or Butt Park, denoting where the compulsory archery practice was held.

But even furze had its uses.  Robin Stanes says that in some parts furze was promoted as a crop.  It was used for firelighting and for heating bread ovens, and even chopped up as an animal feed.  Farmers still working today used to build hayricks on a bed of furze to deter rats.  Nothing whatsoever was wasted on a Dartmoor farm; the bags in which household flour came would make vests for children, after they had been washed until soft and armholes made.  Bracken, now seen as a scourge, and no use to man or beast, was cut and dried in the autumn and used for animal bedding.  Within the last twenty years I’ve seen bracken turned into big round bales for this purpose.

Rabbits were not only trapped and caught, they were systematically farmed on Dartmoor in purpose built warrens.  These were large pillow mounds, where stones were heaped up and then covered with soil and turf to encourage the rabbits.  Thousands of rabbits were regularly transported by rail to the hungry cities before, during and after the Second World War.  Many a country boy did not receive any pocket money; he was expected to earn money by catching rabbits or moles.

After the War the Hill Farming Act of 1946 recognised that upland livestock farming required public support to counter the disadvantages of poor soil, short growing season, high rainfall and extreme weather.  But 100 years earlier the Commissioner of Tithes for Widecombe had recognised similar factors.  In 1841 he lowered the church taxes on corn, citing “a degree of novelty about this case which arises from the local position of the parish, it being situate in the heart of Dartmoor and consequently exposed in a very great degree to Winds and Storm, and from its cold situation the harvest is not only considerably later than in other parts of Devon but in bad season it was stated it was destroyed.”

Tax collectors are not known for having soft hearts or letting the wool be pulled over their eyes, so this is eloquent testimony to the ongoing struggle of hill farming.

Down the centuries up to the Second World War there would not have been great step changes in agriculture on Dartmoor.  That came in the last 50 or 60 years with the arrival of powered machinery.  Until the arrival of the little grey Ferguson, or the Ford or Allis Chalmers, every farm would have kept horses for traction and transport.  That meant that even the smallest farm had to set aside 5 acres simply to keep one cart horse.  So two horses on a 50 acre farm would be tying up 20% of the farm’s potential.  In developing the compact tractor with all manner of attachments on the back Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford were men on a mission to improve the lot of the world’s small farmers, and to reclaim those acres lost to horse keeping.

I have the good fortune to know a Widecombe farmer who at 70 years old still works 7 days a week. In his lifetime he has ridden and harnessed horses; built hay ricks and thatched them with local reed; sheared sheep and shoe-d horses; tilled Swedes, mangolds, potatoes, cabbages, kale, oats etc. He has been a dairy farmer for one lifetime, and is now a beef farmer. He has ploughed for other farmers most of the 2000 fields in the parish.  He is a stone mason, and has built houses and barns.  He is a skilled mechanic on all kinds of machinery, and knows more than some vets about how to deliver a cow of a problem calf.  I like to think of this man as a Moor man, possessing all the self-sufficiency skills that link him back to Hutholes man, and even pre-historic man.

We must not pass over the creation of Dartmoor as a National Park, especially as this year marks the 60th anniversary of the passage of the Act of Parliament enabling National Parks.  John Dower is regarded as the architect of the National Park movement, and I would like to quote the four principles he set out 60 years ago.  He said that a NP should be “an extensive area of beautiful and relatively wild country in which, for the nation’s benefit…1) the characteristic landscape beauty is strictly preserved 2) access and facilities for public open-air enjoyment are amply provided 3) wild-life and buildings and places of architectural and historic interest are suitably protected, while 4) established farming use is effectively maintained”.

When I first came to Dartmoor 30 years ago I was mesmerised by the stone walls and the stone faced earth banks, some of them having avenues of mighty trees atop.  The Devon hedge is a prime example of the sustainability of traditional farming practices.  The fields needed to be cleared of stone before they could be tilled, so it was logical to face the earth bank with stone.  Planting the bank with ash, hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn, alder, willow, crab apple, rose, beech etc produced shelter for livestock; nuts, berries, fruit to supplement the diet, and wood for tool making.  Laying the hedge every ten years or so kept the hedge thick in the bottom so that it acted as a stockproof barrier as well as a shelter belt; regular laying also yielded a completely sustainable crop of wood for the home fires.

A couple of years ago Michael Heseltine made a film for TV.  England’s woodland is often thought of as one of the natural glories of our countryside.  Heseltine went in search of natural forest; what he found was that all our woods, forests, copses and hedgerows were the product of man’s management.  They had all been nurtured and managed for an economic purpose, to provide timber for houses or ships, to make longbows for England’s famous archers, to make fuel and charcoal for industry, coppiced for agriculture, and so on.  The only natural forest Heseltine found was on an island in a Scottish loch.

Reflecting on this and Dartmoor’s farming history I would like to suggest a second theme, namely that all successful sustained land management must have an economic purpose.  As rich a nation as we may be, it is simply not feasible to tend threequarters of our land area for natural habitat, or for bio-diversity or even for what the modern jargon calls ecosystem services.  Land management is a long term business, and it must have an underlying economic purpose.  For the majority of our countryside, and especially for the uplands like Dartmoor, farming is the only candidate for the job.  Moreover it provides highly desirable outcomes for the general public: a beautiful landscape with a mosaic of habitats; open vistas and accessible walking; visible ancient remains.  Grazing by cattle, sheep and ponies produces the variety of sward, some short, some medium, some long which is best for the greatest number of birds. Good habitats are not necessarily achieved by putting a fence round an area and keeping all humans and animals out.  Some flora and fauna actively require the disturbance created by the action of livestock, and the presence of dung preferably from cattle which have not been wormed, so that there is a high and healthy insect count.  The DNP say that over threequarters of the bio-diversity at risk species depend on the presence of grazing livestock.

Traditional pastoral farming really is a little bit of magic.  Grass is the world’s default crop.  As any gardener knows it is one of the few crops that the more you cut it the more it likes it.  If grass had to choose between rain and sun, it would choose rain, which is just as well for us on Dartmoor.  Grass is rich in cellulose which is one of life’s building blocks.  Humans cannot digest grass directly, but we can graze livestock on excess grass and other herbage on the marginal land of the uplands. Cattle and sheep on the hills are living the nearest possible to a natural existence so animal welfare standards are high.  With no artificial fertiliser, and just a dressing of farm yard manure one of Dartmoor’s small 2 to 3 acre fields will produce enough conserved fodder to feed fifteen cows for a month in winter.

As consumers we should be prepared to pay a proper reward to the pastoral beef and sheep farmers for their products.  Hill farming has  a light and beneficial footprint, and has been going on for thousands of years.  How sustainable is that?

Newcomers to Dartmoor are often surprised, or even appalled at the practice of swaling, or burning the commons to control and regenerate the grazing.  This mostly takes place in the Spring and there is a local rule on Dartmoor that it must not be done after 31 March, as birds can start nesting early in the mild South West. Burning excess and unpalatable vegetation, such as gorse, is the only way to recover the common for grazing animals, particularly when as now there is less livestock to contain the overgrowth of vegetation.  Swaling looks drastic, but almost before the ground has cooled ponies and sheep return, and within weeks green shoots appear.  Burning also kills ticks which cause serious disease to sheep, dogs and humans, and many farmers think that burning is the only way to rid heather of the destructive heather beetle.

Until recent times all farms would have had a small number of milking cows providing milk, butter and clotted cream for the household, and a surplus for sale.  The arrival of modern transport, railways and motor lorries, made it feasible for most farms to produce a churn or two for daily collection by the local creamery in towns like Totnes.  For the very first time Dartmoor farmers would have had a regular cash income, no matter how small.  What a breakthrough that must have been.

Widecombe is the upland community I know best.  In 1840 there were 72 fully fledged farm holdings.  As recently as the 1970’s there were still 59 farms, but by then only the minority were full time, 25 as against 34 part-time farms.  Today there are probably no more than 30 holdings, so we have lost half in 30 years, and all but a handful of those that remain are part time, and none of them are in dairy.  So quite a change from the days when your President not only milked cows but made household deliveries throughout the district.

Livestock farming has had a torrid time in the last decade or so, some of it self inflicted.  The twin catastrophes of BSE and foot and mouth reduced demand for British beef and lamb both home and abroad.  It is only in the last year that market prices have begun to recover.  Dartmoor may be a place apart but it is not immune from the effects of  global food and farm prices.  This tough decade for livestock farming is reflected in the figures.  Cattle numbers fell from 56,681 in 1995 to 41,272 in 2006, which is a drop of 27 %.  Sheep numbers fell from 245,312 to 170,356 which is a drop of 75,000 or 30%.

Farming on Dartmoor is still a £20 million pound industry but it is dwarfed by tourism which in 2003 was calculated to be worth over £120 million.  Yet it is farming which creates and maintains the landscape which attracts tourists not just to Dartmoor but to the wider region.

What is the future for hill farming on Dartmoor?  There are plenty of reasons to be worried, and I refer to that first question I posed: the possibility of a period of abandonment of the high moor by livestock.  There are now just 120 farmers left on Dartmoor who still graze the commons in the traditional way.  The worry is that they will withdraw and turn to more intensive and profitable forms of farming in the enclosed land and in farm buildings.  If this happened the upland landscape would change quickly, much of it turning to scrubby forest, dense gorse and blankets of bracken.  Is this what the public wants?

But there are also reasons for farmers  to be optimistic.  The world is running short of food.  To feed 8 billion people by 2030, we need to produce 50% more food than today, and to feed all the people on Earth by 2050 we need to double current production.  All this at a time when the oil, the water, the agricultural land, and artificial fertiliser is either diminishing or becoming hideously expensive.  Today in Britain marginally over 50% of what we consume by way of food and drink is imported.  Clearly there will always be some food products we must import.  But in an uncertain world, and with volatile climate change threatening production around the globe, it must make sense to produce as much as we can at home.The kind of extensive, pastoral livestock farming that we have had on Dartmoor for thousands of years could well come into its own again. What a wonderful thought that in 30 or 50 years time Dartmoor could be teeming with cattle and sheep, making a real contribution to the task of feeding the nation and in a genuinely sustainable way. So my final suggestions are that we must ensure that  farming does not abandon the high moor; lets recognise that all successful long term management of the countryside needs an underlying economic purpose; and lets agree that for the uplands the only conceivable candidate for this is traditional farming.  And finally, when we go shopping, whether in the supermarket, the butcher’s shop or a farmers market lets remember that there is no better or more natural product than grass fed beef and lamb from Devon and Dartmoor.