Prior to the Roman invasion, southern England was a major exporter of grain to Europe. Grain from farmsteads in the Dever Valley would probably have made its way to the coastal ports by boat on the River Itchen or the River Test.
Not a great deal is known about the farming structure and practices in the Dark Ages, but at the time of the Domesday survey, a picture emerges of manors, all of which had their principal house and buildings next to a source of water, namely the River Dever. The most valuable meadows for grazing animals were also those adjoining the river.
Each of the manors extended back from the River Dever to the higher downland around, but the highest ground around Wallers Ash and Bailey's Clump at South Wonston was infertile and not ploughed. It was not until the advent of sheep farming on a large scale in the 15th century that the highest ground became productive. Then it was grazed with sheep, shepherded all day by a lad and driven back to a fenced enclosure at night. Lower down, the soil was richer and it could be ploughed and cropped. For many centuries, ploughing was done by oxen and as the river was often too far away from the fields in which these rather slow- moving creatures would be working, dew-ponds were constructed to provide them with an alternative source of drinking water.
As strip farming gave way to more compact farms during the Middle Ages, farmsteads were built in the centre of each farm, which consisted of buildings for sheltering the animals at night and during winter; sheds for housing the carts and farm tools; a barn for storing the grain; and cottages for the stockmen. Few other buildings were necessary. Crops were not stored under cover in those days. They were cut by scythe, tied up in sheaves and stood out of doors in thatched ricks.
When it became possible to dig deep wells, the farmhouses migrated away from the river to the
farmsteads in the centre of the farms. East Stoke, West Stoke and Wonston Manor farms are all
examples of this practice.
From the Middle Ages until relatively recently, flocks of sheep were the most important component
of the rural economy. Their wool provided great wealth for the nation and right up to the Second World War the wool cheque would normally be used to pay the farm rent. Today it might just cover the cost of clipping the sheep! There was also what was called 'the golden hoof' effect in which sheep were used to enhance the fertility of the soil. Following 'Turnip' Townsend's example, most farmers from the 17th century onwards used a rotational cropping system, which involved sheep grazing crops of clover, sainfoin or trefoil and turnips to enrich the soil, followed by a crop of wheat and then oats or barley. Before the advent of artificial fertilizers this was the only way in which the local poor chalk soils could be made to grow a worthwhile crop.
Although the process of enclosure in the Parish started in the 18th century, it is interesting to note that on 31st October 1825 William Cobbett, when riding from Winchester to Burghclere, remarked that standing on the hill by Bailey's Clump there were very few hedges in evidence - the few he could see marked farm boundaries and were not stock-proof. Of his 13-mile ride, eight or nine were over grass and he was able to ride as straight as a sailor might sail over the sea - that is, until he got lost in Freefolk Wood! Since Cobbett's time, hedgerows have grown up particularly where fences were erected. Birds dropped seeds along the line of the fence and soon after a blackthorn hedge would appear. Although a lot of hedgerow has been lost in the country over the last 50 years, the loss has not been too great in this part of the world and as a result the area is still rich in plant and wild life.
The acceleration in the movement of population from rural to urban areas in the latter half of the 19th century resulted in a significant reduction in the agricultural labour force which in turn encouraged the introduction of limited mechanisation on the farm. Threshing by steam gradually replaced other methods and horse-drawn reaping machines and reaper-binders were introduced.
However, it was the last century which has seen the greatest change in farming. In 1900, a typical 700 acre (283.5ha) farm had 12 to 15 men permanently employed and a couple of extra men at lambing time to help the shepherd. There would have been a flock of 500 or so sheep producing 600 to 700 lambs.
The farm revolved around the shepherd. He told the farmer what he needed, be it crops for the sheep, extra labour etc., and the farmer provided it. The breed of sheep reared in these parts was the Hampshire Down, a hardy and adaptable breed which thrives on both arable land and grassland. Today, it is particularly valued for cross-breeding to produce fast growing, early maturing lambs. Their wool is fine and dense.
The First World War had various effects on local farming. Many young men who worked on the land
volunteered to fight and so labour became short. This shortage was filled by German prisoners of
war and good workers they were. Food was short and prices were high. However, in 1921 prices collapsed. A prime carthorse costing £100 two years before was suddenly only worth £25. This had a devastating effect on farming locally. By 1928, only two farms adjoining the A34 road between Winchester and Whitchurch stayed in business. One was Wonston Manor Farm and the other was near Whitchurch. The remainder were covered in charlock and poppies or thorny scrub.
Many farmers gave up but, as conditions improved in the 1930s, newcomers arrived and some of
them went into different types of farming such as milk production, pigs and eggs which then
showed a profit. John Rowsell moved into West Stoke Farm and was a pioneer of modern practice
in arable farming and rearing of pigs and poultry. He was the first farmer in the district with a
combine, grain dryer and other modern machinery.
Roy Blackadder also came to the area at this time as a tenant of Norton Farm. He too was an
innovator. He brought in one of the first Massey combine-harvesters from Canada in 1949 which
overnight made threshing and binding machines redundant. He was always trying out the latest
ideas. He had one massive tractor called a Field Marshall which ran on paraffin and had to be
started with a blank .22 bullet!
Reg Earwaker also took over Hunton Down Farm before the war. He was a larger than life
character with a particularly keen eye for cattle. One year he bought the Smithfield supreme champion which after the show had to be slaughtered. Somehow he managed to avoid having it slaughtered, brought it back to his farm and then entered it for the Guildford Fatstock Show, where it only gained third prize!
With all the new mechanisation on the farm, carthorses soon disappeared from the fields, more
fertilizers became available and the pace of change accelerated. This encouraged plant breeders to
produce cereal crops with ever increasing yields.
With the Second World War farm labourers again became scarce and the Women's Land Army took
their place. Farmers were asked to produce more and more food and this accelerated the pace of
technological change on the farm. Grain drills, which injected fertilizer into the soil beside the seed,
increased yields and more effective sprays were produced for weed control. Arable farming prospered but wool prices dropped as synthetic materials came on to the market. Nowadays, the only flocks of sheep in the area are being fattened for the market - flocks are no longer kept for breeding.
Pigs and poultry became a common way of earning extra profit but as these units became ever larger and eventually became factory farms, the local farmers decided to give them up. Keeping livestock is a labour intensive activity and today only the Patersons at Hunton Grange and Cranbourne Farms and the Grays at Wonston Manor have significant numbers of animals on their land.
The changes on the farm over the last century have been phenomenal. Whereas in 1900, a 700
acre farm needed 15 men, today it is farmed by a single man. The first combines harvested two tons
of grain per hour - nowadays, the biggest machines are capable of harvesting 20 tons per hour.
Up to 1996 farming was a relatively prosperous business and to survive, the farming community has
had to diversify. For example, with the popularity of equestrian activities some farmers now provide
livery facilities and grazing for horses. Alternative uses have to be found for redundant farm buildings, for example as light industrial or storage units.
The 21st century is seeing more changes in the farming world. A prime example is the practice of
ploughing the land prior to planting. For hundreds of years a process that buried the crop stubble
together with any weeds is being partly replaced on many large farms by a minimal cultivation system; this involves killing the weeds with a spray and then shallow cultivating the land prior to drilling the next crop. This system shows a considerable saving in time and fuel.
Concern for the environment has become an important issue. There are various schemes to help
our wildlife which include leaving grass strips around the perimeter of fields, leaving stubble
unploughed through the winter, and planting belts of woodland. Financial incentives are available for initiatives such as these. There are also many rules regarding the use of fertilizers. Detailed records of the dates and quantities used must be kept in an attempt to reduce the amount polluting the aquifers and finding their way into the streams and rivers.
Another innovation in some of the large arable farms is the use of satellite navigation systems to
guide large machines up and down the fields with an amazing degree of accuracy.
The negative side of all these changes is the ever increasing administrative burden on farmers. In
addition to detailed recording of fertilizer use, livestock farmers have to abide by a detailed regime
recording animal movements on and off the farm. Calves have to be twice ear-tagged with their
individual numbers and are then issued with their own 'passports'. Sheep, including lambs, also have to be ear-tagged. Their numbers are not recorded but all movements on and off the farm have to be recorded and the authorities notified within three days. Failure to comply with all the regulations can involve very heavy fines or, in the case of environmental incentives, their removal altogether with perhaps the risk of having to repay payments received in the past.
Despite the trials and tribulations which local farmers are having to face with ever increasing
mountains of paperwork and rising prices for fuel, fertilizer etc., the long term outlook for farming
must be good as the demand for food around the world continues to grow and food shortages are
becoming more and more frequent.
Ch 10 - Farming - Dever & Down
by George Gray