General view of the county of Devon (1794)
By Robert Fraser

p.21

SKIRTING AND BEAT BURNING.

This process, which, I believe, is peculiar to Devon and Cornwall, has been uniformly practised in this part of Devonshire for near 300 years; and whether the farmer intends to sow wheat or turnips, this is the unniform mode of breaking up grass lands. Skirting is properly a sort of half ploughing, as two or three inches of surface of the ley is left unturned, and is covered by the furrow, cut very thin, with the grassy side downwards; so that the grass side of the furrow, and the narrow balk which is left unturned, being in contact, soon rot by the fermentation of the sward. If for turnips, it is turned thin about Midsummer, and is immediately worked; if to lay to rot for wheat, in the fall of the year it is turned a little deeper. The operation is performed by a wing turned up the furrow side of the plough-share, which cuts the furrow the breadth the farmer chooses; generally about four inches and a half. This operation is sometimes, also, performed by spading, or paring with a breast plough; sometimes, also, with a mattock. But skirting with the plough is generally practised. The best time for this operation is before Christmas, if the grass can be spared: the winter frosts bring it into fine order, but in general it is done in summer. After laying some time, it is cross cut with the plough and well worked with harrows, and either left to rot, or again harrowed and rolled with much care and labour, until the broken sod is made very light, and the earth shaken from the grassy roots and weeds, which are then raked together by hand into heaps, and burnt, which process is called beat burning. A man will rake from an acre to an acre and an half per day, if it is in good order.

p.23-24

However much it may be the custom to think, that in a country so distant from the metropolis, the people know little of the theory of agriculture, yet I am fully convinced, that in point of the practice of cultivation, the labour and care of manuring their lands, there are no people in any district of England of equal extent, where there is so much good husbandry as in the South of Devon. And although their practice of skirting and beat burning, may be condemned by those, who have made extensive experiments in new modes of husbandry; yet it is a fact, that this practice has been constantly followed in this district, for several hundred years, and with great success.