Friday, 30 May 2008

Heathland part II

Gorse - blooming happily in January!


When I had to drive across Llanllwni mynydd recently, it had greatly changed. It had been swaled last year - swaling is a controlled burning to get rid of the leggy heather which prevents the moor grass growing. As a result there were acres and acres of the rough moorland grass (purple moor grass) and some happy sheep! Mostly the sheep grazing up there are the diminutive Welsh Mountain sheep who can cope with the poor grazing and the poor weather over the winter months. Their lambs aren't normally born much before April, and are sweet little things, with tan-brown blodges on the back of their necks and around the tail areas - they look a bit like woolly Jack Russell terriers! The "Heathland" book by James Parry refers to areas of moorland in southern Pembrokeshire (some of which I know from my Archaeology Field Trips), where young boys were given boxes of matches by their fathers and told to go and "burn the common"! Hmmm - how to raise an arsonist . . .

In the past, this sour peaty land in many places was used for the age-old tradition of turving. Hence the old laws of Turbery on the New Forest and elsewhere. Forest commoners would be limited to the number of turves they could cut in a year - usually around 4,000. Some 1,500 homesteads qualified in 1858, and amazingly this added up to about 6 million turves per year. Heather and peat sods were collected in summer using a special spade and dried in stacks on site. Each sod was about 9 inches by 18 inches (22.5 x 45cm), and a minimum of 3/4" (2.5cm) thick - any less and it would fall apart. To ensure that grazing was not lost, and to allow regeneration so the supply would be continual, a strict rotational pattern was used. A chequerboard pattern where 2 turves were removed, leaving one square to grow back, was the norm. Once dried, the turves would be taken and stored under cover for the winter fuel. Many small industries grew up near heathland areas and were fuelled by turves cut locally.

This rough heathland was primarily grazing, however, and ponies and sheep were also partial to the young (softer) growth of the furze (gorse) bushes which grew amid the heather. Some farms had their own gorse mills and if you are ever in Wales, pay a visit to the amazing collection of vernacular buildings and the museum at St Fagans on the edge of Cardiff, and you will be able to see a purpose-built gorse mill building. Such gorse mills would sometimes be water powered. Dried gorse wood would be gathered into faggots, its quick-burning qualities ideal for fuelling domestic bread-ovens. The well-grown gorse was also utilised for chimney-sweeping, with a rope tied either end of the gorse bush and some zealous sweeps at top of chimney and hearth. Gorse blossom was gathered for wine-making (I have done so myself) and the blossom also produced a yellow dye. On Dartmoor, the gorse is known as "Dartmoor Custard"!

The moorland would be busy with furze cutters throughout the year - the bundles of cut gorse being secured by lengths of brambles and carried home. The cutters' hands were protected by stout gloves, of even by winding rope around the hands. The gorse was used by the cottager or sold at market, where there was a brisk trade. Apparently "a good faggoter could cut and tie a hundred faggots a day and for a long time in recent history that day's work would have earned him 2/6d" (12 1/2p in modern money).

Bracken - that bane of modern hill farms, where it is always trying to increase its range - was once utilised in many ways. It was primarily used as a bedding for farm animals, but also used as a compost on the fields, where it was strewn and then ploughed in. As a fuel, it burns rapidly and in the Middle Ages used as a fuel for brick and tile kilns. It was used as a packing material for fragile goods such as china or glass, and also strewn on farmhouse floors or yards and trackways - anywhere where muddy boots and feet needed to be mopped up! When burnt, bracken produced potash, which was not only an excellent fertilizer, but an essential ingredient for soap and glass manufacture.

(Many thanks to James Parry's excellent book "Heathland" where many of these facts were garnered).

1 comment:

Mam and Lizi said...

thanks, Jennie. A wonderful, interesting post.
Nancy