Farming on the Quantock Hills must surely be the most ancient and traditional occupation to still exist as we enter the new millennium. The Iron Age Settlers, who made their encampment high on the ridge in Cockercombe, would have grown basic cereal crops and harvested certain berries and herbs to supplement their mainly carnivorous diet generated by their hunting techniques.
As the centuries rolled by and farming evolved a major transformation transpired with the enaction of the Enclosures Act when huge tracts of the countryside were parceled up into small fields by the introduction of 'banks' and hedgerows, which by and large on the Quantocks, still exist to this day. The wonderful picturesque patchwork-quilt effect views of the fields that can be seen from Wills Neck, the highest point of the Quantocks, is testament to the centuries of care, management and toil of generations of dedicated farming
While a number of quite large estates such as Haswell, Enmore and the Quantock Estate, became established much of the land was farmed by mainly small family tenant farmers who rented their farms from the larger land owners in return for an annual rent. Indeed, at the end of the nineteenth century, as much as ninety-percent of all farmland was farmed by tenant farmers.
Up to that period, and even until the first quarter of the twentieth century, when artificial fertilisers, sprays and chemicals became available, all farms were farmed organically on a rotation system. These farms would have been self-contained, mixed livestock, arable and grass, so that the rotted farm-yard manure could be recycled back onto the land to maintain a balanced soil structure, while weeds were controlled by leaving certain fields 'fallow', i.e. uncropped, on a regular basis. Working the land required considerable fitness with all work being done by hand before the invention of the first horse-drawn mowing machines for hay and binders for cutting wheat, barley and oats. This was the beginning of a major revolution in agriculture that brought about the huge combine harvesters and self-propelled grass ensilaging machines that we now see in many of the fields today.
Perhaps it could be regarded as ironic that economic pressures which are deemed to be currently causing the loss of so many smaller family farms, were equally to blame for the demise and break up of many of the larger estates in the early to mid twentieth century. The Quantock Estate was sold by auction in 1919, and a proportion was purchased by Somerset County Council who set up twenty-one small farms for the purpose of renting to ex-service men returning from the first world war. This service continued to provide successful opportunities to new entrants into agriculture in recent times, but again, economic pressures both on the County Council and the family farmer have resulted in the forced sale of many small farms and the amalgamation of others in an attempt to make existing farms viable. The number of County farms on the Quantock Estate now stands at nine!
The trend for larger farms has also continued in the private sector, and production of milk from the many small family dairy farms is now almost non-existent. Milk is now mainly produced by a handful of very large specialist and quite intensive farmers based on the lower and more fertile reaches of the Quantocks. Heavy usage of artificial fertilisers, sprays and chemicals can be the down-side of intensive production in the public perception, but it is a fact that every farmer, intensive or otherwise, has to treat every financial expense with careful consideration.
The few remaining family farmers are now having to re-adapt for survival. Some options are to extensify or to diversify to qualify for larger government incentives. The Organic Farming Scheme is a prime example where grants are available from DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) to assist with the costs and possible loss of production during the first two years of conversion. Extensification payments are also a Government incentive for farmers to reduce their numbers of livestock grazing per hectare. A less intensive system can assist with the increase in the flora and fauna in the fields and definitely reduces the risks involved through excessive fertiliser use which can be a major cause of pollution to water courses.
Countryside Stewardship is another option to diversify. This is a scheme jointly funded by the Government and the E.U. and the Quantocks are, in fact, a target area for this scheme. Countryside Stewardship requires a ten year commitment by the farmer concerned to introduce a varying number of options into his farming practice. These options can range from public and, or educational access; tree and hedge planting or hedge restoration; stonewall restoration; pasture management to exclude sprays and fertilisers; pond restoration; orchard restoration and field margins where a narrow strip of land around the edge of a field is left uncropped and then planted with a low yielding grass and just left to encourage wildlife into the grass margin and the adjoining hedgerow. This latter option is possibly the most exciting idea to assist with the encouragement of wildlife to arable areas in particular. Free initial advice on C.C.C can be obtained from FWAG (the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group in Taunton. Tel: 0823 355427)
With grateful thanks to Mike Fry for this article.
Mike farmed on the Quantocks at Pepperhill Farm for nearly 30 years.