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The Four Field System

Viscount Townshend successfully introduced a new method of crop rotation on his farms. He divided his fields up into four different types of produce with wheat in the first field, clover (or ryegrass) in the second, oats or barley in the third and, in the fourth, turnips or swedes. The turnips were used as fodder to feed livestock in winter. Clover and ryegrass were grazed by livestock. Using this system, he found that he could grow more crops and get a better yield from the land.

If a crop was not rotated, then the nutrient level in the field would go down with time. The yield of the crop from the field decreased. Using the four field system, the land could not only be "rested", but also could be improved by growing other crops. Clover and turnips grown in a field after wheat, barley or oats, naturally replaced nutrients into the soil. None of the fields had to be taken out of use whilst they recovered. Also, where animals grazed on the clover and turnip fields, eating the crop, their droppings helped to manure the soil.

The four field system was successful because it improved the amount of food produced.

Four Year Crop Rotation Illustration ©  Shirley Burchill Four Year Crop Rotation Illustration ©  Shirley Burchill

Year 1

Year 2

Four Year Crop Rotation Illustration ©  Shirley Burchill Four Year Crop Rotation Illustration ©  Shirley Burchill

Year 3

Year 4

   

Four Year Crop Rotation

From medieval times, peasants had used a system of three year strip rotation of crops. The peasants worked land which had been granted to them by a landowner, often a nobleman. In return, the peasants swore their allegiance to the landowner and were ready to fight for him in times of conflict. Every year in December, the peasants would allocate strips of land to each other at a public meeting. At first, each strip was about one acre (0,4 hectares) in area. Each peasant would be allotted about thirty strips (12 hectares). These were equally divided between three large, open fields. These strips became smaller, and each peasant was allotted less of them, as the number of people in each family eligible for for strips increased.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries there was a gradual increase in the amount of land being enclosed. Enclosed literally meant that a field was surrounded by a fence or a hedge. It also meant that the enclosed field was worked as a complete unit and no longer divided into strips. The reasons for the increase in land enclosure were varied. Soon after the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), some noblemen sold their land because they were short of money. Later, during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), monastery land was taken by the king and sold. Traditionally, wool and woollen products had always been England's major export to Europe. As the profit made from the wool trade increased in the 15th century, more land was enclosed to graze sheep. In the 17th century, it was partly new farming techniques which forced land enclosure. When fodder crops, such as turnips, were grown in the open field system, communal grazing would benefit other people's livestock. Between 1700 and 1845, 600000 acres (2,4 million hectares) of land was enclosed in England.

The new landlords, either noblemen or the new landed gentry, turned the peasants off their land. This left many people homeless and with no means of making a living. Most were forced to beg in order to survive. The landowners, however, could now farm entire, enclosed fields.

One such landowner was Charles Townshend. Townshend became the 2nd. Viscount Townshend of Raynham in 1687. He was an able politician, reaching the position of Secretary of State in the reign of George I. He retired from politics in 1730 and turned his attention to his estate in Norfolk. Townshend introduced a new type of crop rotation which was already practised in Holland. It rotated crops on a four year basis and used turnips and clover as two of the crops in the rotation.

Charles Townsend (artist unknown)

The innovations in this four year rotation system were turnips and clover. Turnips were not a new crop to English farming because they had been grown in East Anglia for use as cattle feed, fodder for livestock, during the winter months, since the 1660's. However, this was the first time they had been used in crop rotation. Charles Townshend was later to be known as "Turnip" Townshend because of his use of this crop in the four year rotation system.

Clover is a plant which is able to add nitrogen compounds to the soil because its roots have special structures, called root nodules, attached to them. Inside these nodules are found symbiotic bacteria which feed by fixing atmospheric nitrogen and producing nitrates (nitrogen-containing salts). The clover, which is more nutritious than grass, was used for grazing the livestock. In turn, the livestock produced manure which could be ploughed back into the soil.

The gradual enclosure of land, together with the four year rotation system, had two major effects on agriculture. The first was that the harvest increased in yield. In 1705, England exported 11,5 million quarters of wheat. By 1765, wheat export had risen to 95 million quarters. The second effect was that livestock, which no longer needed to be slaughtered before the winter months, increased in both quantity and quality.

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2014

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.