View of the Agriculture of Middlesex (1798) p. 297-301

John Middleton, Esq.

SECT. II. PARING AND BURNING.

"Paring and burning has been practised to some extent on Enfield-chase, and very productive crops have been obtained by it."—P. Foot.

*"It has been a common practice on the chase, to break up the ground, and sow it with white or black oats, but seldom to any advantage. The thick tufted, coarse, implicated grass, being turned in, carries most of the moisture from the seed, and proves a harbour for grubs, slugs and worms, which are ruinous to the crops. Add to this, the only chance of the seeds effectually vegetating, is between the furrows, where a scanty portion of poor earth is brought together by the harrow. Were it possible to make narrow furrows, the prospect of a return would be greater; but this would be very difficult, if not impracticable in most places, as a weight of earth is required to keep the harrows down, and to give them an opportunity of operating without tearing up the work."—P. Foot,

A note on the foregoing in the returned Reports—"This observation is a strong argument in favour of burning the turf, and afterwards making a summer fallow for turnips."

"Mr. James too admits, that lands uncultivated, or in their wild and original state, partly forests, such as the chase was before its inclosure, will gradually, by adventitious circumstances, as the fall of leaves, the decay of the vesture, imperceptible fermentation, the nutritious matter that the soil imbibes from the air, acquire a complete envegetic power, according to the properties which the respective lands possess, of acting upon such of the vegetable kingdom as are consentaneous to them; that the breast plough affecting barely the turf or sward, leaves a great part of the vegetable matter behind, which being ploughed, and rendered more pulverized by means of the ashes being spread upon it, the roots of the plants have more room to expand, and the nutritious panicles are disposed to administer their whole support to the crop; and that the whole power of the soil being by these means exerted to one end, a good crop may once, or perhaps twice, be obtained by this mode of agriculture: but he contends, that it is by a sacrifice of a number of future good crops, which might be procured by a different process."—P. Foot.

Against which, the following valuable observation was made in the margin of one of the returned Reports.
"If the turf is so impoverished as to be of no use externally, its property cannot be altered by ploughing it up, and turning it into the soil: on the contrary, the latter, by this practice, is burthened by an inert substance, that cannot in any possible way aid subsequent vegetation. But very different is the effect produced by burning the turf. Its sterility only vanishes by this operation, and in its stead leaves a fertilizing power, that, under the circumstances, could only be obtained by such chemical process. This power united with the soil, produces a principle of attraction that quickly furnishes a subtile nutriment much more advantageous than that which 'may have escaped in the original decomposition."

But the fear (excited by theoretical writers on this subject), of exhausting the soil, by such bulky crops, induces people to plough up tough, wiry, benty, and heathy, old sward, without paring and burning; to the very great injury of the parties. Many there are who fall into this error; and among the number, were several of the owners of allotments on the chase*. As that did not answer, they are now very sanguine in their expectation of success from an experiment of paring only, and carting the parings off the land into heaps, there to remain until the mass be reduced to mould; when these heaps are to be re-carted, and spread on the land from which they came. This is a laborious, expensive process, that will require three or four years to perfect, even for the smallest piece of land, and much better suited to the whim of a man of fortune than to the pocket of a farmer.

The impropriety of breaking up this kind of land without paring and burning, is manifested in the neighborhood of Beach-hill, where land, after twenty years inclosure and cultivation, is in a worse state now than it was originally. Well would it be for the owners of such allotments, if they could now pare and burn it; but it has been ploughed, and, not producing more than what the vermin destroyed, laid down in so rough a state to grass, as to be incapable of being pared and burnt. The original wiry bent, and dwarf shrubs, are now growing in full vigour,

On the inclosure of Stanwell, in this county, the allotments on Hounslow-heath succeeded well under the perfect practice of paring and burning; and ill, where the turf was ploughed without the application of fire. In the former case, the land was immediately fit for turnips, tares, barley and clover: in the latter, the tough wiry bent, heath, and dwarf furze, kept the land too light and spungy for any crop. Even rolling cannot keep it down, for its elasticity raises the soil soon after the roller has passed over it, and it is of so imperishable a nature, that it is likely to plague the farmer for many years. The difference between the two methods of breaking up rough ground, is more than the value of the freehold in favour of paring and burning, which immediately opens a source of great profit; whereas the other proceeding leads to nothing but expence and disappointment.

*As related by Mr. Goodchild of
Staffordsea, Hants, to Mr. Jenkins.

The before-mentioned are the only two instances in this county, that have come to my knowledge, and they are both decidedly in favour of the fire. In various other counties, I have observed the same decided preference due to paring and burning. The instances which are produced against it, have arisen from the rapacity of the occupiers; who finding, from the first crops of turnips and corn, that the land was in great heart, have sown wheat fourteen years in succession, till the soil was wholly exhausted*. Certain theoretical reporters have, in consequence, condemned paring and burning, as "the most infamous of all practices," without passing any censure on the knavish occupier, and the negligent land steward who permitted so infamous a succession of crops. There is no more propriety in thus generally condemning paring and burning, than there would be in exclaiming against all warm stimulating manures.

*"Paring and burning reduces vegetables and their roots into coal and ashes, and thus prepares both a stimulant and nutriment for plants; it also destroys the old sickly roots, and thus leaves room for others, younger and more vigorous.
    Coal is an essential ingredient in the food of all vegetables: it is found in all vegetable and animal manures that have undergone putrefaction, and is the true basis of their ameliorating powers.
    Burned clay and brick-dust, improve the texture of clayey soils, and supply also the carbonaceous ingredient."—R. Kirwan.

"The coaly principle may be exhausted by too many crops;—but if these crops are consumed green on the land, the dung and urine of the cattle will increase the carbonaceous principle.—J. M.

But paring and burning has more merit than any other manure, in its property of converting heath, furze, shrubs, wiry bent, into coal, most fitly prepared for the food of plants; and it will pulverize such a soil as much in two years, as all other means can effect in twenty*.

Paring, burning, and liming at the same time, is the most efficient and cheap dressing that can be given to land on the breaking up of commons and rough pastures, where the natural productions are ling, heath, furze, rushes, and coarse grass. On whatsoever soil they may be found, it never has failed of advancing the land to the first degree of fertility; and he must be a very bad farmer who cannot continue, for any length of time, land so enriched, in a high state of productiveness.

Suppose two or more of each of the crops of turnips, tares, cole, and clover, to be raised and fed on the soil, and the land then laid down to grass, without corn, in such case, it cannot be doubted but the herbage would be abundant, and coveted by all sorts of cattle; and its duration, if continued in pasture, would be co-eval with the land.

The particulars brought against this practice, totally fail in proving that paring and burning is in the smallest degree of an impoverishing nature; but they demonstrate the ruinous practice of a succession of corn crops, and the necessity of strong covenants, and a watchful attention, on the part of the landlord, to their due execution, in order to secure the land against being exhausted,

The hills on each side of the meadows which produce the Newbury peat-ashes, consist of chalk, easily dissolvable by heavy rain, which washes it off the ridges, down the furrows, ditches, and streamlets, to the low grounds, where mixing with the floods, it is floated over the meadows, and deposited in the peat. Consequently the peat of this district differs from that of most others, by the quantity of chalk which it contains; and, when dug, dried and burnt, the fire reduces the chalk to lime, and the rest to ashes. Hence Newbury ashes are a mixture of lime and vegetable ashes, and it is very probable that any common peat-ashes, or the ashes of rough grass land, of turf, heath, furze, ling, wood, &c. produced by the operation of paring and burning, being mixed with chalk lime In due proportion, would be equally fertilizing as these noted ashes.

The operation of paring turns the sod upside down, and, when covered with heath, the shrubs keep it raised a few inches above the ground, so that it readily dries sufficiently, and is mostly burnt in that state; This is a saving of much trouble and expence, the ashes are thereby more equally spread, and the fire operates over the entire surface of the soil below where the spade went, which is to a greater depth than usual. The following is an instance of the success of a case of that kind.

"The Rev. Mr. Cooke, in the month of April 1792, determined, I understand, to make a course of experiments on a farm which he held in the West Riding of Yorkshire, by burning the sward all over the surface, in the state in which it was left by the paring-spade.—The land was intended to have been ploughed immediately after it was burned; but this was deferred by other business of the farm, for above four weeks, when, to his astonishment, he discovered better than half a plant of spontaneous grass, where nothing but heath and ling had grown before. Agreeably surprized by this unlooked-for circumstance, he suffered it to remain in the state it was; and the grass not only thickened very fast, and grew quite green, but, being the spontaneous produce of the earth, and not arising from seed that had been sown, continued permanent.

"The spontaneous production of this luxuriant grass, he accounts for by the parings being burnt all over the surface instead of in heaps, and never suffering it to burst into flame sufficient to exhale the pabulum existing in the soil.

"The land on which this experiment was tried, is a black peat earth; the former produce of it heath and ling. The expence of paring and burning he calculates at 16s. an acre, and the present appearance of the land, he says, affords a reasonable expectation of its being here after worth at least 16s. an acre per annum."

Inclosing has been carried on in an extent more than ten times, greater in the north of England than in the south-east; and the opportunities of observing their effects, have of course been proportionally many. Most of these new allotments of the commons have been broken up by paring and burning. The few who ploughed their land without this operation, have been much mortified by their own crops not succeeding so well as their neighbours'.

It may be proper to observe, that I am by no means an advocate for the burning of any turf that will readily harrow to pieces; that produces a fine herbage, and which is usually fed bare; nor indeed for the ploughing it at all, except its produce be very scanty, and manure scarce; and then only for the purpose of growing and feeding three or four green crops on it, and laying it down to pasture again.

Land, when pared and burnt, yields its treasures very freely: this puts it in the power of tenants, with short leases, to exhaust the soil by successive corn crops; and which may be continued so long as to leave the land a mere caput mortuum. But this is occasioned by landlords not granting longer leases, making proper covenants, and seeing them complied with.

For instances of great improvements produced by paring and burning, see the Reports of North Yorkshire, p. 55, 109, 113, 114, 115, and 116; Boys' Kent, quarto, p. 38, 45, and 46; East York, p. 37, 39, 50, &c.

Further, I have known much land, worth from one shilling to two shillings and six-pence an acre, advanced, by paring and burning, to ten, twenty, and even thirty shillings an acre, on twenty-one years leases.

Paring, burning, and chalking, is an excellent method of breaking up wood sour land.—Wilts, p. 94.

Paring, burning, and liming, is equally proper for black peat earth, though peat earth may, in some cases, be greatly improved by liming the old turf without breaking it up.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN OF ONE OF THE RETURNED REPORTS.

Paring and burning is the best method of proceeding in new inclosures where heath and furze grow, as those seeds cannot be destroyed by good husbandry in any fixed period. A proof, in 1793, of furze seed not being destroyed within a period of seven years cultivation on new inclosure where furze growed—some land in South Mims allotment part of Enfield-chase, had been cultivated nine years; was apparently very clean, sufficient to lay down, which was done in 1792 with clover and rye-grass; after mowing the first crop (1793), there appeared to be young furze springing up, and on examining, it appeared general. The spring of 1794 it was thought advisable to turn it again to the plough, therefore it is most probable no person has been able to ascertain how long a period the seed of furze, by cultivation, can be destroyed. Which observation is very obvious, that paring and burning in that case is absolutely necessary.—Anonymous

"Paring and burning any black peaty or heath ground, without lime, is a bad practice; the ashes alone would produce two or three miserable crops of oats, though no herbage; but with lime, good wheat, oats and grasses."—Cardigan, p. 27.

"Paring and burning is but little used; but when it is, no management equals it: the farmers on our hills are shy of acknowledging its benefits." —Worcester quarto, p. 6. Appendix.