A Compleat Body of Husbandry (2nd edition, 1758) 1: 193-198.
Thomas Hale, Esq.

Of bastard burnbaitings.

THESE methods of dressing land have been in practice in many places, and in all ages, though not distinguished by any particular name. It might have been said the practice of burnbaiting is as old as any thing we know of husbandry; the poet Virgil is quoted by every one, for describing it, and all the Roman writers on country affairs have named it. If we take in these bastard burnbaitings, the assertion is more just, and the practice may be said to have been not only antient, but universal. Some of these speak of burning the soil itself: but they all talk of firing its produce upon it, such as dry stubble, and the like; as also of burning other matters upon it brought thither for that purpose. These practices are what I call bastard burnbaitings, which term comprehends the burning the refuse product of the land; or whatsoever is brought to, and laid on it for that purpose: the burning any thing except the turf, which in true burnbaiting is cut up for that purpose.

Ashes are a good manure; but they are of ten-fold value when made upon the land. Men seem to have been instructed in this practice as it were by instinct, for they have fallen upon it in places where they could not have been taught by one another.

In Ceylon they burn off the dry'd stalks of their harvest to prepare the land for a next year's crop: and in America the natives used to spread dry wood over their lands, and set it on fire by way of cultivating the ground. The ashes fell pretty regularly this way; and the ground was well and uniformly heated by the fire, so that it could not fail of yielding a good crop; and this, as it was not so severe a practice as burning the turf, would not be of that ill consequence to the land for future years.

Where wood is plentiful enough, there cannot be a better method than thus spreading dry small wood over a stubble field, and burning that and the stubble together. Let us not be ashamed to learn even from savages, when their practice is founded upon reason.

We may consider this general practice of bastard burnbaiting under four heads, as it regards, 1. The burning of sedge on wet lands. 2. The burning the stubble upon corn fields. 3. The burning any waste product on heaths and commons; and, 4. The bringing on materials to the land, and burning them there.

The burning of sedge on wet lands is an old practice. In these places the grass is short and sour, and there grows a kind of low flag; whose leaves take up more room than the grass. These are usually yellow, and in October they become dry and strawy. They then cover the ground so, that there is scarce any grass to be seen, and they are dry enough to take fire.

The farmer is to take the advantage of a very dry and moderately windy day, and set fire to a whole edge of the field, that the flame may be carried before the wind. The ground will be thus cover'd with flame, and soon after with a kind of light black ashes. He is then to wait for the first shower to damp them a little, and immediately upon this to sow the whole ground thick with hay seed.

It often happens that the winds take off the whole quantity of the ashes from the ground, but even then the advantage is not lost, for the heat arising from the burning, has killed the roots of these flags that lay just at the surface, and has prepared the ground to receive the seed, which soon takes root, and overpowers any other growth: in spring it shoots up at once, and grows immoderately. There never fails to be a good swarth from this practice, however contrary the season may have been; but if a little rain fall, and the ashes are well wash'd in with the seed, the sudden shoot is surprizing; and the weeds never recover themselves.

In fen lands where the ground is spungy, and cover'd with rushes, they turn up the turf with a breast plow, and burn it on the soil, afterwards sowing hay feed instead of corn. This is absolute burnbaiting, only as grass does not exhaust land like corn, it has not the disadvantage of impoverishing it in that manner for many years after. This will continue good pasture ground a great while without any other care.

It is a needful practice in such grounds, because their wetness is not to be corrected by a mere burning of the sedge; and rushes are too firmly rooted to be destroy'd by that slight method. In the isle of Ely where this light flag over-runs the surface, I have seen the practice of firing it without stiring the ground, used to very great advantage; and though begun there but a few years ago, and only in one particular place, it is becoming universal. The advantage procured the other way is greater, but this is easy, and it satisfies the farmer.

The burning stubble upon the fields is a common practice, and though the ashes made this way are light, and but small in quantity, yet the heat given to the ground, makes such a dressing better than the laying on four times the quantity of the best ashes brought from elsewhere.

This practice succeeds excellently upon those lands that are used to feed the straw, and starve the ear. The farmer finds some lands that yield a full stalk, and a poor ear; and others that lengthen and fill the ear, while the stalk is short. He cannot tell the reason of this; the burning of stubble upon the worser of these lands, brings them into the condition and nature of the better.

When the farmer intends to burn his stubble, the first thing should be to plow up the land under the hedges; for it has often happen'd, that by the wind the flame has been driven to the hedge, and catching hold of decay'd branches, has done vast mischief.

Tho' we have not recommended lime with the ashes made by right burnbaiting, yet for this purpose a sprinkling of lime thrown among the ashes all over the field, and the whole plow'd in after it has lain to slake with two or three showers, is a prodigiously rich manure.

The benefit of burning the waste and useless product upon commons is very great. Stub up the broom, heath, or other waste matter, and pile it in little heaps, throwing over it what earth has been rais'd in the getting at the roots: these heaps being all prepared, are to be set on fire in a still day, and left to burn to ashes. The earth that is thrown upon them is well calcin'd by their burning, and though reduced to a state in which it would not be fit singly for the growth of plants, it becomes an excellent manure.

Nothing need be done to these ashes till they have lain to be drench'd a little by the wet. They naturally fall in regular heaps. When they have been well wetted, the husbandman is to spread them in a dry and still day over the land; and then the sooner they are plow'd in the better.

Lime is a fine addition to the mix'd ashes made thus; but it is a manure that does not agree with every soil. The ground in these heathy and broomy commons is sometimes clayey and sometimes light and hollow. When It is clayey, the method now describ'd is to be used without farther addition, for lime will never do well upon clay: but when the soil is light, let the farmer lay upon every heap of ashes, half a bushel of good stone lime; and then let him leave all as before for the rains to damp the ashes, and at the same time flake the lime: after which let him spread them as before directed, and plow all in.

A great deal in all these improvements is left to the discretion of the farmer: if he do not suit his manure, and his manner of using it to the particular soil he has to work upon, he will do nothing even with the best materials, and the most indefatigable industry.

These bastard burnbaitings are only a slight imitation of the real, and though they may, to save expence and trouble, or to suit particular circumstances, be used instead of the perfect method, they never succeed so well. There are cases where the right burnbaiting is not proper; but wherever it is, though the cost be greater, the consequence makes amends. The last mention'd case we particularly except, for the lime here is a very material part of the dressing.

When this method has been carefully executed, the effect of the ashes, the calcin'd earth, and the lime, together with that of the warmth given to the earth itself about the heaps is such, that scarce any other succeeds so perfectly.

It is an easy and a cheap practice. It takes effect upon the most barren soils; nay, it is best of all suited to them. What would the considerate husbandman wish more? or why should not every land owner who has such grounds, put it immediately into practice. He need not make the least doubt of a great return.

Last place we are to mention that kind of bastard burnbaiting by bringing sticks, stubble, haulm, and other waste stuff upon the ground, and burning it to ashes. Many have supposed this practice did no more service, than dressing the land with wood ashes; but they are greatly mistaken. The heating the earth in such a degree as is done by the making small fires upon it, we see is a great assistant to its fruitfulness; and this makes a great difference between one and the other of these two practices. In this matter the savages of America are better directors to the English farmer than the common writers. They dress their land with ashes, but 'tis always such as are made upon the spot, so that the land has the advantage of the heat.

If any one doubt whether there be this good quality in heat, let him observe the effects of the two last mention'd burnbaitings. In the other, care is taken to mix the more improv'd part of the soil with the less, and consequently all is equally fertile. But in these two last the ashes, alone, or mix'd with lime, are sprinkled and plowed in, but nothing else is done. Now let the crop upon either of these lands be regarded, and the observer will find, that although the whole field be fertile, yet there are here and there round spots on which the corn is fairer and finer than in the rest. And when he examines the matter strictly, he will find that these are the spots on which the several heaps were burnt.

The ashes made by that burning have been carefully spread; and they have not been more abundant in one place than another: to what then is this particular fertility of these spots owing? it is to the heating of the ground under and about those heaps.

Let this instruct every farmer who intends to dress his corn land with ashes, to burn the materials upon the place. Practice shews, that the lighter these materials are, the more fertility there is in the ashes. Now the stuff burnt on these occasions is much lighter than the common billets used for firing. This therefore is some advantage, but the heating of the ground is a much greater.

Although the perfect burnbaiting of lands has on many occasions a greater effect than any of these superficial and imperfect imitations of it; yet the farmer will find his account in these.

The perfect burnbaiting is proper only for certain soils, These several different slighter imitations of that excellent practice have been laid down to suit it to others.

The farmer will see in what manner, and on what occasions he is to employ them: and he may have this comfort in the use of them, that when he can only employ the slighter kinds, his lands have not occasion for the more perfect: and though additional encrease be less, the expence also is less which procures it.