Essays on Husbandry (1764)
Walter Harte

Burn-Beating

Those who would throw an old pasturage into lucerne, instead of fields that have been long in tillage (which is a point more easily managed) must have recourse to burn-beating, an old practice of husbandry, in my opinion, originally English, but kept up in its full forms only in Cornwall and Devonshire.

*What the farmers at present, in most parts of England,
call burning the couch, is an imperfect burn beating.

As I have been a constant witness of this operation for a number of years successively, and remarked its defects and advantages with a careful eye, \ may, perhaps, one time or other, deliver my sentiments at large upon the whole process; for the practice appears to me to be of great uninterrupted antiquity in the counties above-mentioned,* and more or less known and used all over England, till about the time of the restoration.

†This shews that we ought, according to proper orthography, to write burn-beating,
and not burn-bating, burn-baiting, and burn-baking, as many authors do.

To perform this work, in order to prepare an old pasture-field for receiving lucerne, I must first make the reader acquainted with an instrument, called, in the west of England, a beating-axe,† of which I shall give a representation cut in wood in this section.

‡ If the turfs in taking up these roots, be much broken and mangled, it will perplex the burn-beaters in their cutting,

With this beating-axe, when old pasturages are to be prepared for receiving lucerne, after the bushes and brambles are neatly ‡ grubbed, the turf is cut up in strips about two feet three inches long, and ten or eleven inches broad. These strips are thicker or thinner, according to the foulness of the swerd; but the usual thickness is three inches; for, if the instrument does not cut below the crown or head of the roots of weeds, such roots will sprout again, and the first labour become fruitless. The work-man, with the same tool he uses in cutting these slices or strips, sets them up very dextrously, in a sort of spiral pyramid or cone, not much unlike an high-crowned hat, but rather more obtuse; in which position they dry speedily and conveniently, the grassy part standing outermost.

The common expence of this labour (for I shall pass by the whole process, which is very minute) including the burning the turf and spreading the ashes, in very coarse grassy ground choaked with weeds, comes to about one pound seven shillings an acre, and I have known above five hundred bushels of ashes procured from a single acre.

This performance being finished, and the ashes spread, make use of a light plough, and plough the ground with a thin shallow stroke, cutting the lines formed by the burn-beaters at right angles. Harrow the trash together, till little or no earth remains sticking to it, and then burn it in small heaps.

In such grass-fields as are broken up expresly for receiving lucerne, begin the first operation in the former part of May, and let the seed-burning take place before the end of June. Forty equidistant heaps (called by the Swiss perpetual ovens, about two feet and an half diameter, with half a furze-faggot placed near the bottom, and an airhole fronting the wind) will answer the purpose better than two hundred small ones, according to the common practice.

These heaps, when once thoroughly lighted, may be fed, enlarged, and consumed at pleasure: Whereas in small heaps a great part of the outermost turfs will remain uncalcined.

†Published in 8vo, 1761.

The field thus prepared must be gently stirred with the plough, after the seed-burning and spreading ; I say gently, because allies have a great propensity to sink deep into the ground. Afterwards, at leisure, give the field a winter's fallow, that the dry sharp force of the ashes may cool a little, and then prepare it duly for a spring transplantation. The marquis de Tourbilli’s famous treatise sur le Defrichemens,† is founded principally upon the art of burn-beating. He fancies the practice to be originally French; but it is incontestably certain that it has been constantly made use of in Devonshire and Cornwall, from times immemorial. Our writers speak distinctly concerning it in the beginning of the last century: Theirs are totally silent; even De Serres, with all his minuteness, in a vast folio, never mentions it in the year 1600.

Saepe etiam steriles incendere prosuit agros. and again,
Effaetos cinerem immundum jactave per agros.

I will speak a few words more upon this subject.—Tho' the manner of burn-beating may vary in several countries, as also the methods of collecting together the hurtful vegetables that ought to be burnt; and tho' different instruments may be made use of for scarifying the surface of the earth, as light common ploughs, finned, and three-coultered ploughs, paring-axes, &c. yet the practice in general seems to me to be almost as old as agriculture it self. Virgil advises it,‡ but describes not the operation, being at that time well known. The Hurons of Canada (the most sensible civilized nation on the continent of North-America) have never used any other sort of manure; and the inhabitants of Upper Hungary have pared and burnt the foul turf from times immemorial.

But burn-beating, like all other good practices in husbandry, may be abused, and in some cases prove detrimental rather than useful, either by performing the operation improperly, or repeating it too frequently. But these exceptive cases deserve to be considered more at large. It may suffice here just to suggest the precaution.

Nor is there any reason to think that the instrument, made use of to pare the turf, is of French invention. To prove which, I will beg leave to lay before the reader a print of the French ecobüe, and refer myself to those persons who have chanced to take notice of our West-country beating-axe. Nor will I dispute the national credit of this invention, (except in a ludicrous manner) with such an intelligent and skilful cultivator; but rather wish to say, in the language of the poet,

——Solida est mihi gratia tecum.

Ovid. Met. xii.

*An Italian who wrote an ingenious book de Rebus inventis ac deperditis.

Therefore the whole matter in question (with the marquis's consent as well as mine) may be left to the decision of some future Pancirolli.*

The FRENCH ECOBÜE.

The English west-country beating-axe is precisely the same with the French beating-axe here represented, if we except only one particular; which is, that the handle of the English instrument is something longer, and consequently more commodious.

If this beating axe of the marquis de Tourbilli be not of true, original, English invention, it seems plain to me that we did not copy it from the French, but from the Italians, who had always a frequent intercourse with the south-west parts of our kingdom, in making voyages for tin; and of course might shew us the use of their instrument called Zappeta. For as agriculture revived with them some time before it made any shew of considerable appearance with us; (now by the way we were half a century before the French:) And as drawings and prints were published of most husbandry implements then used in Italy, it is probable that such improvements made no small noise in Europe, and many things were copied from these discoveries.

The Italian ZAPPETA: Being a paring or beating axe used in the year 1569.

What makes me more inclined to think, as I now do, is that the Devonshire and Cornish spade is formed exactly upon the model of the Italian bailli (a spade made use of in stony mountainous countries;) of which I will here give a slight sketch, omitting the handle, which is about four feet fix inches long, without cross-bar, or ear at top, as the common garden-spade has.

The Italian BAILLI, or field-spade, of the same antiquity.

"Whoever remembers the Devonshire or Cornish spade, will see at one glance that the bailli and that are the same thing.

The east-country husbandman holds the west-country-spade in derision very unjustly; for, tho' it is of little use in gardening, as it turns up a cone of earth instead of a cube, yet no instrument of the sort works so expeditiously and easily in a stony country.

The nature of its point facilitates entrance, and the length of its handle, in dislodging and upheaving a large stone, supplies the place of a leaver.

I shall conclude this section, so far as it relates to lucerne-nurseries, with observing, that, if the nursery be made somewhat larger than I have recommended, the supernumerary plants may be reserved till another year or two, with no small advantage to the owner.

Those persons, therefore, who make a large plantation of lucerne, would do well (if they have a quantity of roots in the nursery sufficient for free chusing and rejecting at the time of transplanting) to remove only the larger, well-coloured, vigorous plants, and leave the small and more weakly ones in the nursery, which, in another year, will make excellent roots for supplying some vacant places in the transplanted field; for forty or fifty plants out of a thousand may be supposed to die every year. These seemingly contemptible roots, left in the nursery, will make a fine appearance in the second year. They will procure free space and nourishment by the removal of their neighbours; and the ground will be loosened and stirred round them in taking up the better roots.

These nursery-plants may be taken up, clipped, and removed into the field, as before directed, till the beginning of autumn in the third year of their growth, after which (another small nursery being made for replenishing vacancies in the great plantation) they must: remain undisturbed in the place where they were first sown, and be cut occasionally for green fodder. But, perhaps, I may suggest here a better expedient, confirmed by frequent trials: Which is, that if, at the first time of transplanting, the cultivator should find a considerable number of small roots in his nursery, and yet be desirous to fill the whole piece of ground set apart for receiving the transplanted roots, I would then advise him not to cut the tap-roots of the small plants at all, but remove them into the new ground in their natural state, shortening the herbage only: And such small plants, thus managed, will prosper extremely well. My reason for giving this advice is, that, is you amputate the tap-root in a small plant, then a sufficient length of root will not be left to answer our purposes; and, as thenceforward the root in question will shoot no more downwards, the result will be, that it will never attain a sufficient depth of ground, and consequently may be easily dislodged in hoe-ploughings, and injudicious cutting, when the operator, making use of a reap-hook, grasps the herbage of the whole plant in his left-hand, and pulls a little upwards with it, at the same time that he is cutting with the right.