The twentieth century has seen huge changes in farming practices and therefore in land management. In the 1920s, when farming was in the doldrums and farmers had to scrape and save every penny they could, many hedges were left untrimmed, fields became dirty with weeds and brambles, cropping was largely with spring-sown crops and stubble remained untouched for weeks or months after harvest. Bad for farming by modern standards, but great for wild-life of all sorts.
Then came the war, with huge pressure to produce as much food as possible, leading to new machines, modern tractors, the combine harvester, improved varieties of corn and intense encouragement through grants and subsidies to increase production. Farmers rose to the challenge: land was drained, woods, hedges and hedgerow trees were removed, ditches were cleared out or filled in, and the phrase “prairie farming” entered the dictionary. Good perhaps for farming efficiency, but less so for wild-life.
Next came the European Economic Community and the Common Market (now the European Union) which led to food surpluses, beef mountains, butter mountains, wine lakes and so on, which in turn took minds off production at almost any cost. Instead we started to learn a new vocabulary with words like “conservation,” “habitat,” “green,” “wild-life corridors” and so on.
Here at Thurlow we have been spared the extremes of intensive prairie farming for two reasons. First, the owners throughout this century have all been interested in nature and wild-life; and secondly, they have all been keen sportsmen, loving their shooting and their hunting. As a result, no woods have been removed and many more have been planted. Where too many hedges and ditches had been removed, a programme of replacing them has been put in place, with about fifteen miles being planted in the last ten years.
On this heavy clay land drainage is all important and wet spots will not do. But instead of introducing expensive drainage schemes to catch up springs and wet patches, with the help of the Woodland Grant Scheme we have planted up small spinneys. Awkward corners of fields, which made life difficult for the large modern tractors, reversible ploughs and combine harvesters of today, have been planted up rather than taking out the hedge to round off the field boundary. Verges have been left uncut and headlands by hedges unsprayed to encourage the wild þowers; while the hedges are trimmed only every second year to provide cover for nesting songbirds as some protection against the increasing number of sparrow hawks, magpies and other predators.
During the depression of the 1930s and the war many of the woodlands became badly neglected. The move to intensive corn production saw most þocks of sheep disappear for a time, with the loss of any demand for sheep hurdles. So the old system of managing the ancient woods mainly of oak and ash changed. Instead of coppicing the hazel for hurdles and thus encouraging the re-growth of the hard woods, after the war we followed the recommended policy of clear felling and replanting with one row of hard woods and three rows of softwood between them as nurse trees. Unfortunately, the hard woods chosen were mainly sycamore, which was meant to become valuable for the demand for veneers (which never came) and beech, which is more suited to the lighter land. Fortunately, we realised this system was not ideal for our heavy land before it had gone too far. As they grew up, the evergreens killed off any undergrowth beneath them and when their roots penetrated the clay and reached the chalk in many cases they died before reaching any worthwhile commercial value. The sycamores and beeches too shaded out the undergrowth, the woods became cold and draughty, and wild life of all sorts suffered.
Today we have reverted to the old system of selective felling of mature trees together with coppicing the hazel. The best of the oak goes for making furniture, the less good for building or gate posts and such like, while the smallest pieces left over are used as supports for the plastic tubes in which we plant the young trees. The rest of the hard wood goes for firewood, supplied by Thurlow Woodlands to many parishioners and beyond.
The result has been a healthy, thriving rejuvenated set of woods, with plenty of warm undergrowth welcomed by all sorts of wild life. The one snag is the damage done by the ever-increasing numbers of deer. Attractive though they are to look at, we have to keep their numbers down, or the regrowth we need would not happen.
From the agricultural side we have had to move with the times, in order to stay in business. Larger machines have meant fewer men. However painful that may have been, profitable employment for some is at least better than everyone losing their jobs and the whole area being farmed by some distant contractor who is interested only in the maximum profit regardless of the consequences to nature, conservation and the neighbourhood.
We try to strike a balance between efficiency and conservation. The pleasure that hundreds of people derive from the sporting activities each winter make the conservation even more worthwhile, apart from the pleasure in spring and summer which those with eyes to see and ears to hear derive from the wild þowers and song birds we do our best to encourage.