The Countryside Explained

Report on our meeting held 20th March 2017

Interests in local history tend to concentrate on the development of our towns and the characters who lived there. This week we looked at the countryside that surrounds our towns and how it has changed through the ages. We could have had no better person to tell the story than Chris Tomson. He spent a lifetime in farming before turning his experience to the role of farm conservation advisor.

Chris explained how the topography of our countryside until very recently was wholly shaped by geological forces going back millions of years. The chalk of the Wolds and the limestone of the Yorkshire Dales and Derbyshire Peak District are made up of the remains of small sea creatures, while much of Scotland consists of harder volcanic rocks. The last ice age, a mere 12,000 years ago sculptured that landscape stripping the soil off the limestone pavements of the Dales but not extending far enough south to do the same to the Peak District hills. The moraines left by the ice sheets created lakes when the ice melted such as Gormire Lake near Sutton Bank. The glacial clays left in the Vale of York are not easy to farm.

Early man has left his mark. Chris showed us Bronze Age field patterns that can still be seen in some places. The Wolds never had many trees and this land was probably the first to be cleared by our early farming ancestors. Farming though is driven by market forces and when wool became a valuable crop, arable land was turned over to sheep pasture and whole villages were depopulated. Later, when the land was enclosed, the landscape changed again with new roads and field boundaries replacing the strip farming practices. The speaker showed us strip farming preserved near Doncaster by Natural England.

Recent generations have had an enormous effect on the countryside. Chris sited the upland reservoirs for water supply, waste from coal mines, and the clearing of the wooded moors for grouse shooting.  A hundred years ago one man walked 11 miles to plough one acre in a day.  Today one man with a tractor can plough 100 acres a day. For efficiency hedgerows have been removed and field made much larger. Crops have changed to, such as the recent introduction of yellow fields of oil seed rape.

Chris explained that there is a realisation that maybe we are now too dedicated to growing crops and natural balances are being upset. Chris asked, when did you last have the front of your car splattered by insects in the summer and what is affected by of this large reduction in the insect population? He contends that preservation, that is keeping the old, has a place; but conservation, that is managing change, is an essential way forward. He gave examples of where grants available to farmers to manage land for wildlife have proved beneficial to both wildlife and the farmers themselves.

The Prior Rick Hudson asked Maureen Bell to give the vote of thanks.  She thanked Chris for his wonderful photographs and a story well told.