Field Systems

True farming probably began in the Yorkshire Dales during the Neolithic, though before that, charcoal evidence indicates that hunters were systematically burning clearings in woodland to manage their prey. So far, archaeologists have found no evidence for the earliest field systems in the Yorkshire Dales. It may be that during the Neolithic, farmers were relatively nomadic, clearing and cultivating new fields until the soil was exhausted, then moving on. Such farming methods would leave very little trace in the archaeological record.


The apparently Bronze Age nucleated settlement at Burton Moor may have some of our earliest fields associated with it. A cluster of 14 huts sits in a series of irregular curved enclosures. The enclosure walls are built of boulders and may originally have had a wooden fence on top. A recent survey concluded that some of the enclosures were probably used as paddocks for stock and that flatter ground to the west of the settlement could have been used for grazing. The fact that the site is so high up the valley side supports the idea of a pastoral rather that arable economy.


Elsewhere we find evidence for small, embanked field systems on High Close above Grassington, which may have been used for growing crops. Secure dating evidence remains elusive but they were certainly cultivated for a long period of time. Cairn fields such as the extensive one near Maiden Castle in Swaledale, are another indicator of prehistoric fields. Before land could be cultivated, stones had to be collected up by hand and then piled into large heaps called clearance cairns.


As populations grew and the climate worsened towards the end of the Bronze Age, it seems that people may have begun to compete with each other for the best agricultural land. By the time of the Iron Age, communities in the Dales certainly seem to have begun to organise their land on a much larger scale than ever before.


The evidence for this is a series of large field systems best seen in Swaledale and Wharfedale. Examples have also been recently surveyed on Little Asby Common in the Westmorland Dales. They consist of long stone walled field boundaries that run in parallel series up the valley sides. They form what are known as co-axial field systems. Again, dating evidence is sparse and some may even have been constructed during the Roman period. Co-axial field boundaries run almost to the top of the watershed in some places while others stop where the steepest slopes start. It is not clear how far down into the valley bottom they ran. 19th century agricultural improvement has destroyed much of the evidence of ancient boundary walls here, but recent archaeological work would seem to indicate that they extend into the modern farmland of the valley bottoms, at least in Swaledale.


The co-axial systems of the Dales are divided by cross walls and there is also evidence for walled trackways. It seems more than likely that these field systems enclosed grazing land, with the trackways used to move cattle and sheep up and down the valley sides. The trackways may even mark the boundaries between the land of different communities or family groups. Cereals and other crops would have been cultivated in fields down on the better soils in the valleys and as we have already seen, little evidence for these survives.


Following the Roman conquest, not much seems to change except where a specifically romanised farming system is introduced as at Gargrave Roman Villa. Here, by the third century AD, a well-organised farming landscape had been laid out on the rich arable land surrounding the villa.


The period following Roman rule sees some agricultural land abandoned and returning to scrub, but the estates seized by the Normans from their Anglo-Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon owners seem for the most part to have been well-established agricultural holdings. The peasants who worked these estates cultivated the better soil on the valley bottoms and sides for arable crops and hay and grazed sheep and cattle on common pasture above. The open moorland was also grazed during the summer months.


Strip lynchets and ridge and furrow earthworks are some of the most characteristic archaeological features of medieval field systems in the Dales. Lynchets are terraces formed on sloping, usually south facing arable ground. The action of ploughing and collecting stones along the edge of the plot builds up ‘steps’ on the hillside. Ridge and furrow was also created by ploughing, this time around long narrow strips of land, throwing the soil up into a ridge in the middle. The ridges created a larger surface area for the cultivation of crops, and the raised soil in them was dryer and warmer.


Careful survey work has revealed both continuity and change in the way fields were laid out in the medieval period in the Dales. This can be seen particularly clearly in Upper Wharfedale. The medieval fields of the township of Kettlewell seem to be a direct development of an earlier co-axial system whereas at Conistone, a series of medieval lynchets is laid out along the contours apparently ignoring earlier boundaries.


Conistone medieval lynchets MYD36676 (c) YDNPA 2023

Conistone medieval lynchets MYD36676 (c) YDNPA 2023


Much local research has been undertaken, mapping out the early township field systems of several communities in the Dales. Hebden in Wharfedale for instance has been shown to have had four open fields in medieval times, probably managed communally, although part would have been farmed directly for the lord of the manor. Some parts would probably have been communal meadow or pasture while others would have been cultivated in strips. The layout of some of these strips is preserved in more recent walls in Towns Field. The common fields were described as ‘open’ because they had no physical boundaries within them. They would of course have needed a strong outer boundary. Local survey work in Hebden has revealed the remains and course of these boundaries. They can be recognised as dry stone walls wriggling across the landscape and incorporating large boulders in their foundations. Often built along the line of an embankment, their course may also be marked by trees or relic hedgerows. A good example of this boundary type can be seen alongside High Green where a drove route provided access to moorland grazing.


As communal management of the lord of the manor’s estate gave way to rent paying tenants then freeholders, the open arable fields of townships were divided with physical boundaries such as hedges and walls. In Hebden, the manor was sold off in 1589. There followed a long period of readjustment when the scattered strips held by the various freeholders in Hebden were sold or swapped to create more logical groups of fields around individual farmsteads. These were eventually walled, probably starting in the 17th century, sometimes preserving the outlines of the original strips.


Through the 16th and 17th centuries, less and less land in the Dales was given over to arable cultivation. Farmers began to concentrate on growing hay and creating ‘intake’ pasture for their animals from the poorer land of the valley sides. The rough grazing on the hilltops was still generally held in common, with farmers assigned the right to graze a certain number of sheep or cattle each year. In the 18th century, lime was spread extensively to ‘sweeten’ upland pastures and more and more bits of the upland commons were nibbled away and enclosed.


The early 19th century saw the greatest change since the break up of the common fields. By this time, agricultural improvement was the driving force and the government had passed various Enclosure Acts forcing communities all over the country to fence their communal farm land. Surveyors were sent out to measure up the fields and mark out the boundaries. St Mary’s Church in Muker has an interesting memorial to one such surveyor. By the time enclosure came to the Dales there was really only the moorland pastures left to fence, and there is no sign of the misery it caused in other rural communities. The ruler straight lines of the new enclosures can be seen all over upland grazing areas in the Dales. A huge area can be seen on the upper slopes of the south side of Swaledale between Keld and Low Whita.


Changes in farming practices in the 20th century meant that many of the 19th century and earlier field boundaries were no longer relevant. Small farms were swallowed by larger ones. The high cost of maintaining dry stone walls; larger farm machinery and the practice of making silage instead of hay, all favoured the creation of larger fields.


The modern farming landscape of the Yorkshire Dales is a reflection of the field systems that went before. The special nature of this landscape means that they are now valued. Field boundaries that no longer have any farming relevance are preserved, the archaeological remains of banks and walls are left undisturbed. From this evidence an unrivalled picture of thousands of years of landscape management can be drawn.

Related sites:
Stone and earth bank on Downs Pasture


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Hut circles on Burton Moor MYD4460 (c) YDNPA 2023
Hut circles on Burton Moor MYD4460 (c) YDNPA 2023