A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 4, Agriculture. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.
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Notwithstanding its important role in the 18th-century Industrial Revolution, (fn. 1) Shropshire was mainly an agricultural county until recent times. From the first practice of agriculture in Neolithic times until the later 20th century the county's population was predominantly rural, though long before the 1960s it was a dwindling minority that earned its livelihood or drew its rents from the profits of farming. (fn. 2) Even in the later 20th century, when c. 44 per cent of Shropshire people lived in the two main towns of Shrewsbury and Telford, the county's landscape remained largely rural and agricultural. (fn. 3)
The main crises in the long history of Shropshire agriculture and rural landed society naturally coincided with those that affected the nation. The severest crises were those that came most suddenly, as in 1066 when the English landowning class was largely dispossessed, in 1349 when the Black Death brought demographic disaster and the beginnings of profound social and economic change, in 1536-40 when the monasteries were dissolved and their great landed estates confiscated, in the 1870s when cereal prices collapsed, and c. 1910-25 when many great landlords, to their tenants' alarm, sold off their estates. The consequences in Shropshire of such crises, and of the secular changes that they engendered, are among the themes treated below. Of necessity the story is not continued beyond c. 1985, a date which, though fortuitous, is by no means an unsatisfactory point at which to break off. In the mid 1980s, as perhaps never before, farming was subject to strong and bewilderingly contrary political, social, and technological pressures, some explicit, some subtle. The perspectives of the 1980s, too short to yield any confident prediction of the resolution of those pressures, have nevertheless suggested that some of the more important of them-themes for a future historian of agriculture- result from a faltering of confidence in the immediate economic future of farming and from a redefinition of relationships between agriculturists and the general public over the exploitation and conservation of the countryside. (fn. 4)
The prosperity of British agriculture was continuously fostered by successive governments after the Second World War, (fn. 5) and for a decade after 1973, when the United Kingdom became a member of the European Economic Community (E.E.C.), (fn. 6) the community's common agricultural policy (C.A.P.) seemed to promise a continuation of that support. The farmer was supported so that he might maximize his output. In the spring of 1984, however, the E.E.C. set limits to milk production by introducing quotas. In Shropshire, as elsewhere, the immediate practical effects were not dramatic: the number of registered milk producers in the county, for example, fell from 1,382 to 1,347 in the year 1986-7 but 11 million (2 per cent) more litres of milk were sold off Shropshire farms in 1986-7 than in 1985-6. (fn. 7) The quotas, however, were a psychological shock, and one not merely to milk producers but to the whole farming community. (fn. 8) For the first time in a generation some farmers were being asked to restrain production, and those who were building the E.E.C.'s wheat mountain had reason to fear that they, like contributors to the butter mountain, would in due course have to reverse direction. In the western half of England dramatically increased yields from new strains of wheat and high C.A.P. intervention prices had made winter wheat a reliable and profitable crop to be stored in intervention warehouses (fn. 9) like those at Prees Heath. In the 1980s, however, the C.A.P. was under attack throughout Europe and, despite the apparent impossibility of its reform, it seemed to offer the farmer progressively less certainty for the future as the 'single European market' planned for 1992 drew nearer. (fn. 10) British farm incomes began to falter about the same time. In 1982 they increased by a record 45 per cent, but at the end of 1984 they were said to be 8 per cent below the 1982 level. In 1988 the government introduced a 'set-aside' scheme intended to reduce arable crop surpluses, and particularly the growing of cereals on relatively marginal land. For a five-year period payments of up to £200 a hectare were to be available to farmers who took at least 20 per cent of their arable land out of production. Land set aside had either to be left fallow, planted as woodland, or used for certain specified non-agricultural purposes mostly linked with leisure and tourism. In 1988 the set-aside premiums offered were not high enough to induce the county's farmers to take land out of production immediately; nevertheless many farmers did register their land for possible setaside in the course of the five-year period, seeing it as a useful option in the event of cereal prices falling. (fn. 11)
As farm incomes were checked and the value of agricultural land fell in the mid 1980s (fn. 12) farmers were coming to feel that they were increasingly under pressure from the advocates of 'green', conservationist, or environmental policies. (fn. 13) The use of fertilizers and weedkillers, for example, aroused particular alarm from time to time, and in 1986 the Shropshire Association of Parish and Town Councils called for a tightening of the regulations concerning crop spraying. (fn. 14) Large-scale drainage schemes enhancing the value of farm land were resented by some as unwarranted interference with the landscape at public expense and evidence of a 'cosy relationship between the Ministry of Agriculture and the water authorities to grow crops for which there is no market'. (fn. 15) Nevertheless it was by no means true that relations between the water authorities and the farmers were inevitably cosy: the Severn-Trent Water Authority's Shropshire Groundwater Scheme, developed from 1981, was at first very vigorously opposed by the county branch of the National Farmers' Union. (fn. 16) Nor was it the case that issues raised by conservationist policies automatically divided farmers and conservationists into opposing camps. On the one hand there were conservationists who were unhappy with the working of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act (fn. 17) while on the other hand there were farmers and landowners who welcomed conservationist policies out of regard for their land (fn. 18) and as a way of increasing their incomes or diversifying their sources of income. (fn. 19) By 1988 Shropshire contained c. 80 sites of special scientific interest (S.S.S.I.s) and some two dozen farmers or landowners in the county had by then received payments or compensation ('for profits forgone') under the 1981 Act for managing or not disrupting areas in those sites: typical payments were those for agreed methods of woodland management, for leaving grassland unploughed or wetlands undrained, and for relinquishing the use of pesticides and fertilizers. (fn. 20)
There were of course from time to time straightforward conflicts between conservationists and farmers when particular sites were ploughed or drained, perhaps because the 1981 Act was being put into effect too slowly to bring prompt protection to many of the S.S.S.I.s. Efforts were, however, made to bring farmers and conservationists together regularly, and by 1984 the Shropshire Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group had been formed to that end. (fn. 21) What seemed to hold out hope of some eventual success for such efforts was the fact that in a period of economic uncertainty two related and increasingly urgent questions were acknowledged to require answers from both agriculturists and conservationists: how intensively should resources of land and water be exploited for agriculture when too much food was being produced, and how could some proportion of those same resources be put to profitable, non-agricultural uses? Some possible answers were beginning to emerge in practice. Agricultural diversification (fn. 22) was one, and there was increasing local evidence of it. (fn. 23) At the Lynches farm, Yockleton, for example, 'Butterfly World' opened in 1984, and by 1988 (renamed 'Country World') it attracted thousands of visitors a year not only to see butterflies but to study old livestock and poultry breeds and areas of conserved meadow on the edge of the working farm. (fn. 24) Flower and herb farming was being tried in more and more places, (fn. 25) and by 1988 there was deer farming at Webscott farm near Myddle and at Walford College of Agriculture, and milking ewes were kept at Wackley farm, Petton; (fn. 26) Shropshire then had at least one snail farm too. (fn. 27)
Another way in which conservationist policies and the interests of agriculturists were beginning to come together was evident from the many conversions of redundant farm buildings for domestic or tourist accommodation. (fn. 28) Increasingly during the 1980s those concerned with conserving the countryside's architectural heritage had been expressing concern at the loss of old farm buildings. (fn. 29) By 1988, however, many Shropshire landowners and farmers were realizing much additional capital or income from their surplus buildings, then at last recognized as very considerable assets. (fn. 30)
The Shropshire countryside is varied and diverse. No form of agriculture has ever been predominant throughout the country, and in recent centuries the county's traditions of mixed husbandry have engendered flexible responses to even the severest crisis. There were some signs in the mid 1980s of a similar flexibility of effort to ensure that the prosperity of farming and the manifold life of the countryside should continue to flourish.