A Compleat Body of Husbandry (2nd edition, 1758) 1: 185-193.
Thomas Hale, Esq.


Of burnbaiting


To the improvements of land by ashes, may be refer'd the great and valuable practice of burning the baite or turf, called burnbaiting, and denshring of land, from the name of the county in which it was first a general practice*

Burnbaiting is perform'd by cutting off the turf of the ground, piling it up in heaps to dry, and afterwards burning it to ashes; which ashes are spread over the naked surface, and plow'd in. This is the practice in general terms. For the sake of the practical husbandman, we shall lay down some instructions on the manner of performing it, before we enter on its advantages, which we hope to teach him not only to obtain but to preserve. This last article is a secret yet unknown to all our farmers.

The cutting off the turf, as universally done at this time, will admit great improvement. The present method is this.

A stout labourer pushes a breast plough before him by the strength and weight of his body and arms, at a small depth under the turf. This is a plain and poorly contriv'd instrument, consisting of a kind of share, with an edge for cutting the turf, a handle, and a cross piece at top. They pare off the turf with this about an inch thick, more or less, according to the quantity of roots, or other vegetable matter there is in it; the more there is of this, the thicker the turf is to be taken off. It is thus cut into pieces of a foot and half long, and nine or ten inches bread, and turn'd that it may dry.

A plow with a proper share, drawn by a horse, would perform dais business in a much quicker and more advantageous manner. There is a very convenient instrument for the purpose, describ'd in a late treatise on this subject, which though I have not seen us'd, yet is so plainly fit for the purpose, that I shall propose it to the farmer's consideration.

A hollow plowshare rising with a sharp edge in the middle, from the point to the top, and having a fin both ways, beginning at the point and running back to the share, must be fix'd to a light and strong piece of ash sharpen'd forward, but left thick and strong behind.

The share should be two foot broad from point to point of the fins behind; a foot long; and a foot high. To the end of the ash pole must be fasten'd a strong piece of wood nearly perpendicular, but hanging a little backward: this must be two feet high, and on the top must be a cross piece for fastening the harness of the cattle. This is easily understood, and any country workman can execute it.

The handles of the plow, and the earth boards to turn the turf, are to be fix'd also into this square head. The instrument is then compleat, and every plow boy will be able to manage it properly with a little instruction.

He must begin at the edge of a field, and as he goes on, one turf will be turn'd toward the fence, the other inward. When he returns he must direct the plow just along the edge of the last mention'd turf, for it covers a part of the ground that is not cut up. This will be cut up at the return, and turn'd over with the other.

In this manner the whole field is to be pared; and the turf will lie in long pieces reaching from one side to the other. There requires after this the cutting it into lengths: but that must not be called an additional trouble, the former having been so very trifling in comparison of what is commonly requisite to that purpose. The gentleman who invented this plow, has also contriv'd a very plain and simple instrument for the purpose,

A roller is to be made of the trunk of a found tree, firm, large, and heavy. It is to be hoop'd round at every two feet, and from the middle of each hoop is to rile, all round, a blade fix inches deep, stout at the bottom to support it against: bending, and sharp at the edge. The roller thus arm'd, is to be drawn over the whole field cross-ways; and its weight pressing the edges all the way down, the turf will be cut through and through at every two feet. By this means the whole surface will be cut into turfs of two feet long, and one broad, which is a proper size.

The turf being cut up, we are to proceed to the drying, piling, and burning of it: for howsoever plain and simple this operation may seem according to the few words in which writers have described it; a great part of the benefit the farmer is to reap from it, depends on a very critical regard to every part of the process.

If the soil be light, and the weather hot and fair, the turf will dry with once raising up and turning: but if its own dampness, or the wetness of the season prevent this, it must be piled together hollow, in little heaps; where a passage being left between the turfs for the wind, they will quickly be dry'd.

The turf will in some places burn singly and of itself when dry; in others it must be assisted.

When the soil is very poor, the turf thin, and few roots among it, it will not do alone. On the other hand where it is better, the turf cut deeper, and there is a great deal of roots in it, and of stalks, and dry leaves upon it, 'twill burn alone.

In the other cafe he is to strew a little dry heath or furzes under every heap, and if it be very poor, and he make his heaps large, he must mix some of the same dry stuff among the several of every heap.

'Tis best to make the heaps small, whatever be the soil, or the condition of the turf; they burn best, and being more numerous, they improve more of the surface of the ground in burning: for 'tis not only by means of the ashes that barren grounds thus treated are improv'd, the very heating of them by these several fires tends to divide their particles, and encrease the fertility.

Some make a great art of raising these little heaps, composing them often or a dozen turfs each, which they twist curiously together, leaving a hollow within; and holes between in several places, as if they ty'd them into knots like ribbands, or imitated the flourishes of a writing matter's pen. They then draw in pieces of furze between the holes, and fill the hollow part with it. To this there is no objection, but that it is a great deal of needless trouble.

A good wheel-barrow load of the turf is sufficient for each heap, and if they are of the poor kind, a little dry furze should be laid upon the ground under and between them: this is all that is needful. The labourer then is to set them up end-ways, and edge-ways, as loose as he can; and when all the heaps are thus rais'd, and have flood a day or two for a farther drying, the furze is to be set on fire; and they will catch from it, and burn away sufficiently for the farmers purpose.

Many a husbandman after all his toil has lost half the advantage from the single circumstance of not regarding the proper degree of burning.

Fire carries off all the efficacious parts of most substances: but this it does gradually; and the progress may be seen. The farmer wants to reduce this turf to ashes; but as he wants these ashes to enrich his land, he should get them as full of virtue as he can.

If a plant be put into the fire, it burns away to ashes, but these ashes at different times differ very much in appearance, and in their qualities. When the plant first falls into ashes, those are of a blackish grey; and as they continue in the fire they become paler and paler, till they are at length perfectly white. While they are of a dark grey, they have a great deal of taste, but when they are burnt white, they are only a little brackish.

Chemists tell us, that this colour is owing to the oil of the plant, as is also the taste; and that this oil, burning away, leaves the ashes pale, and of half their virtue. Very likely the account is true. The colour and the taste must be owing to something, and whatever that is, it burns away afterwards.

We don't know what principle it is in ashes that gives fertility to the ground; but whatever it be, 'tis best to preserve it as entire as possible. Let us apply this reasoning to the husbandman's burnbaiting.

Let the farmer mark the course of the operation in the burning of one of these heaps of turf. He will find, provided the fire go on well, that at first all the heap looks blackish and dusky; when the turfs which compose it, begin to crack and crumble to pieces: a little while after this he will see them moulder into an heap of redish or yellowish ashes, with several lumps among them; and a while after a great part of the lumps will moulder away, and the ashes, in most parts, become of a pale grey; and in some places whitish.

It is easy, from the before mentioned directions, to know in which of all these states the turf is fittest for his purpose. While it is black and holds together, it is burnt but imperfectly; when it begins to crack and crumble to pieces, it comes nearer to a condition for his service: but the true state in which it is to be used is, when 'tis just moulder'd to pieces, but yet retains a yellowish or redish colour: the ashes are at this time thoroughly made, and yet they retain their full virtue. After this, every minute that they continue on fire, they lose some part of their goodness.

We are now naturally led to consider the proper degree of fire, for the bringing the turf to this state, with least loss of the virtue in burning.

All violence of heat wastes the virtue of the turf; therefore the farmer is to burn them by a flow and mouldering fire. The less additional fuel he uses the better: and that there may be occasion for as little as possible, he should dry the turf as perfectly as he can first. It is for this reason the ashes made from rich turf, are better than those from such as is poorer, for the rich kind consumes by itself, and that slowly.

I have known a farmer who thought he was doing his business to great perfection, in this article, dry his turf so well, and then put so large a quantity of furze under and between each heap, that the whole virtue of the turf was sent into the air, excepting what remains in all ashes. Every heap has blaz'd away like a bonfire, and the ashes have remain'd white, and in a manner insipid.

To preserve the full virtue of the ashes, a slow smothering fire is best. The inside of the heaps will be always more burnt than the outside, so 'tis enough, in many cases, if the outside be well crack'd, and ready to break to pieces with a small blow. In this no universal rule can be given, for the nature of the turf differs so much, that some will hang together till struck, when it is over-burnt, and other kinds will break and fall in before they are half reduc'd to the proper state. We have taken the only general method; that is, informing him of what is the right state of the burnt turf, for giving its full virtue. And his eye must watch this, and take the proper opportunities of continuing or stoping the burning, when it is needful.

The farmer may guess, by the nature of the turf, what fire it will bear, and what addition of fuel it will want: this he is thoroughly to weigh before hand, for on this a great deal depends. The practice succeeds best when the hills will burn just as long as they should, and so may be left standing whole upon the ground. This will depend upon the quantity of fuel, and their own different nature. If too much fuel have been given them, and they continue burning within, after the very outside is done enough, then he is to break and spread them a little, so as to make them go out: but it is much best when they go out of themselves, and remain properly calcin'd and whole: for when they are thus; broke and scatter'd, if a windy day come, half the ashes will be blown away.

The heaps being so well made, and the fuel so justly proportioned to the nature of the turf, the hills are all sufficiently burnt and stand entire.

The farmer is to leave them thus till thoroughly cold, and if any happen in any reasonable time, till there has been a good shower or two of rain, he is then to prepare for spreading of them, taking the advantage of a calm and still day.

He is to begin with paring the surface of the earth up to three or four inches depth all about each hill, and then removing the hill a little, he is to pare it somewhat deeper, just under its place of standing. These parings of the ground are to be thrown upon the hill, and all is to be then broken and mix'd together.

Not only the ashes of the turf fertilize the ground; but this very act of burning; the real and actual effect of the fire does great service to the land, so far as it reaches. A greater degree of fire alters the very quality of earth, and renders it unfit for vegetation, but fire, in this degree, only heats it enough to divide it, which is one great end of all dressings.

As the earth that was under these hills, and that just round about them, would be thus rendered more fruitful than that between one and another of them, the land would afterwards be fruitful in spots and patches: or the crop would be too rank in these places, and starved in others.

To prevent this, the farmer is to pare away the earth under and about each hill; and mix it with the ashes of that hill. The quantity of these ashes will be thus encreased, and they, together with this earth which is thus enriched beyond the rest, will be regularly spread over the whole fold.

Some add lime to the ashes, half a peck to every hill, supposing each hill made of a single wheelbarrow full; or more, as the hills are larger. They put this in under the hill, or among the ashes; and don't stir it till rains have come to slake it. This adds to the fruitfulness that follows, but it is not needful. Nay the danger of a piece of land that has been well dress'd in this manner is, that it should be too rich, and make the crop over rank. We therefore advise the farmer to make no use of lime, or any other addition to the ashes, except the earth, par'd up as before.

The best season for this is about the middle of May, for at that time the surface of the ground is generally in a good condition for burning. The April rains have made the roots shoot out, and the ensuing warmth has dry'd it. Beginning at this season also, he will have time for waiting every opportunity, to take advantage of weather; and will have his ground in thorough order for his seed.

After burning and spreading the ashes, he is to plow the land, and sow it; and this plowing must be the slightest imaginable. He must go to no great depth, and only just turn in the soil, with the ashes upon it, so as to mix all together. The farmer here saves half the expence of his seed corn. For one half the quantity that is allowed to other lands, is sufficient for these, after burnbaiting, and the crop will be very abundant. It is most profitable to sow wheat the first year; and 'tis best to sow it very late: the first week in November is soon enough, and this way it will flourish and yield a vast abundance.

Few can conceive how profitable a method of dressing it is. What should recommend it the more strongly, is, that it is not to be used on lands which are good in themselves, but on the very poorest and worst, and never fails of success.

It should never be practised on rich soils; nor is it proper on stony, gravelly, or chalky: or indeed for any lands that have been kept long in tillage. The proper use of this method is, for poor, barren, rushy, and heathy grounds, that have lain untill'd, and are of little value.

The farmer is here instructed perfectly in the art of obtaining an excellent crop from the most worthless land.

The advantage will very well last three years, and in that time it is easy to obtain, from such a piece of ground, as much in clear profit as would have purchas'd it at the full value. The husbandman is content with this, and he leaves the land as he found it: for the effect of burnbaiting does not last more than the three years; and at the end the ground is full as poor as it was before. This forced fertility has indeed so thoroughly exhausted its new strength, that it will not be fit to bear any thing afterwards, till it has had a rest of ten or a dozen years.

Though the farmer is content with this three year's profit, there is no necessity he should be so, nor are his advantages confin'd to that time, unless by his own indolence.

Burnbaiting, and dressing with dung agree in this, that they both render land fertile for three years. The difference is this. At the end of the three years fertility from dung, the land is ready to receive another dressing; but in the burnbaiting way it is not.

But if it will not receive dressings at the end of three years, they should be offer'd to it in the mean time. It will receive them if they be; and here lies all the secret.

Dung raises but a moderate fertility, and is used to land that was not bad before. Burnbaiting is employ'd on land that was good for nothing; and it gives, the first year, a prodigious encrease. It might bear recruiting after this; but after two years more being exhausted, without any supply, it will not. It is then too much impoverish'd to receive good from any thing, like animals after too long an hunger, that die when they have had food.

We shall propose a method to the farmer, by which, having recover'd such a piece of ground from barrenness, he shall keep it good and fertile for ever.

After the first crop is got in, let him prepare the ground for the second by common manure. This will be readily received; and by this it will be brought to the condition of other land, and may be treated, in the same manner, as a better soil for ever; in the common methods, and with the common advantages.

If marle can be had let the recovered land have a middling quantity of that laid on it, between the first crop and the second sowing. This will be extreamly worth while, for after this it will be at once in the condition of other marled lands; and being treated like them, will yield for a continuance in the same manner.

If marle cannot be had, a common dunging will do; or a compost made of horse dung, cow dung, and river mud.

Tho' burnbaiting is a dressing only needful to the worst of soils in the full extent and degree; yet there is no reason others which do not want it so much, should be wholly denyed the advantages of the practice.

We see ashes are an excellent manure; and the heat which is given to the earth, by the burning small quantities of vegetable matter upon its surface, is a great improver of its fertility. Ashes may be a very proper manure for lands that do not require absolute and thorough burnbaiting; and if we give them heat at the same time, it will be still better.

The farmer will do well, on many occasions, to make those ashes upon the land, with which he intends to manure it; and he will thus have the benefit also arising from this heating of the ground. As this does not require the absolute burning of the baite, or turf itself, I shall distinguish these dressings by the name of bastard burnbaiting.