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Improvements in Farming in the 18th century

Between 1693 and 1700, the harvests were poor due to the exceptionally wet weather. Wheat prices were higher than 48 shillings per quarter. However, from 1700 until 1765, the harvests were much improved and the price of a quarter of wheat averaged around 40 shillings. In fact, between 1730 and 1740, wheat prices fell to an all time low. People found themselves better off and had more money to spend on consumer goods. Prices did start to become higher than 48 shillings once again, around 1770, when the population increase turned England into an importer of wheat rather than an exporter.

The years 1700 to 1770, however, had seen some interesting changes in livestock farming caused by the improved harvests and the introduction of the four year rotation method. Previously, most cattle and sheep were slaughtered before winter set in, since there was no food to feed them and they provided meat during the coldest months. Harvesting turnips meant that livestock could now be fed during the winter. This increased the number of animals and this, in turn, provided a good supply of manure which could be fed back into the soil to improve its nutrient content.

Cattle, Normandy, France © Shirley Burchill

Some livestock experts, such as Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke, introduced selective breeding programmes to improve the quality of the animals. Bakewell crossed different breeds of sheep to select their best characteristics. At the time, this was known as "breeding in and in". His experiments in selective breeding of sheep produced the Dishley, or New Leicester breed in 1755.


Sheep (lbs)

Cattle (lbs)







This sheep had long, coarse wool and produced a high quality and yield of meat. Bakewell also experimented with breeds of cattle. In 1769, he produced the Longhorn; a breed that was a good meat producer but gave a poor milk yield. Bakewell was also the first to hire his animals out for stud. His farm, in Dishley, Leicestershire, became a model of scientific management. Thomas Coke, farming in Norfolk, used similar methods to Bakewell's to produce breeds such as the Southdown sheep, Devon cattle and Suffolk pigs.

Bakewell was one of the first to breed both cattle and sheep for their meat value. Before his breeding programme, these animals were kept for either wool and milk production or for working on the farm. The result of selective breeding was livestock with more market value. The following information comes from the records of Smithfield market and shows the average weight, in pounds, of sheep and cattle at the beginning and the end of the 18th century.

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