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WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

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The History of Agricultural grasses in the UK

The importance of grasses for food for cattle is only second to the importance of grasses as food for man, and agriculturalists have been awakened at length to the necessity of intelligent care for their cultivation. here we look at the history of agricultural grasses and how, over time these grasses have shaped the landscape of Britain.

Mr. Lawson of Edinburgh , was one of the first of the distinguished seeds men who gave earnest study to the subject. He stated that in his opinion grasses were first cultivated in England in the 17th century, but that Scotland and Ireland were a century later in turning their attention to the subject.

the first serious study involved shaking the seeds out of the best natural hay crops, and sow new pastures with this mixture. Stillingfield was the first man to be credited with selecting approved species for seed.  Thus as soon as the selection process into seeds for agricultural grasses commenced they were divided into two main sections.

The first section was Natural grasses, or those that were planted by nature. The second section was termed as Artificial grasses or those that were introduced into the pasture by man.  The Natural grasses have been utilized by man ever since agriculture began even in its simplest forms. But in the 1700's men began to distinguish grasses by their qualities, and began to prefer one to the other.

However,  due to lack of experience and expertise, farmers in general, still regarded the green covering of meadow and pasture as 'grass', except in rare circumstances when a more intelligent farmer took note of his observations. In 1776 more notice was given to natural British grasses by the London Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, who advertised a prize or prizes for gathering by hand the seeds of Meadow foxtail, Meadow fescue and Sweet vernal grass. This stimulus seemed to awaken the interest of many agriculturalists. Encouraged by the response the same society followed up with another prize stimulus in 1769, but this time it offered a gold medal to the person who gave the most satisfactory account of the various properties and comparative value of one or two species.

In 1882 a new and important era was commenced as concerned the grass family.The Duke of Bedford turned his full attention to their study, and, assisted by a very experienced and intelligent gardener, proceeded to test the qualities of all the British grasses, along with the foreign introductions.

Red clover growing in grassland-

Image by Dal

Early experiments with grasses.

Mr Sinclair,s plan was, in the first instance, to analyse the turf from various pastures, which were highly approved by experienced and intelligent farmers. The turf was then reproduced onto land where the grass in habitation was inferior.  He soon concluded that any failure to renew swards of land that had been ploughed up arose, not from the time it takes grass to reach perfection, not from any injury to the land  by course grain crops, but from neglect in employing the seeds off grasses natural to the soil, and which constituted the turf before it was broken up.

After his observations and on reflection, he confirmed his original conclusion, that the aim of human art in agriculture is to assist nature and not to work against it. Thus he devoted himself to the constant observing of the habits of grasses. He found that from the beginning of Spring until the winter set in, there was never a time that one species or other of grass was not in its prime. he discovered that some species contained more nutriments before the production of the flowers, some where of more value during the flowering season, some when in seed, and many of them owing the most value in the aftermath. 

He also discovered that dry weather aided the growth of some species, while the moisture that of others. hence he learned to adapt different species to different soils, and to combine a succession of grasses to form a pasture. 

Typical  lawn grass structure

Courtesy of Kelvinsong CC BY-SA 3.0 License.Diagram of a typical lawn grass plant.

Messrs, Wheeler, of Gloucestershire, following faithfully in the Steps of Mr. Sinclair,did, with the aid of Professor Ramsey a prepared list of grasses suitable to the various geological formations of Great Britain. They state in their book on grasses-" In old pastures nature is a true index for us to the indigenous to the soil, and by careful examination, we find grasses, clovers and other plants varying on each geological formation in a very remarkable degree. The herbage on the south downs, so well adapted for short woolled sheep, differs entirely from the herbage on the Cotswolds , the home of fine long woolled sheep."

Moreover there was the taste of the cattle to consider. Sheep have likes and dislikes. They will trample over grasses they dislike to get to the grasses they favour. The Dactylis glomerata {see grasses three} they are very eager to eat. Horses again have their preferences as do cows.

Hence the agriculturalist, had much to consider. He had to weigh up the capabilities of the situation, the qualities  of his grass and what it would provide him with. The proverb 'God helps those that help themselves' was an apt proverb for the farmer.

Every part of the grass plant affords food for animals, but grasses vary greatly in the quantity of foliage they produce, and of course the quality they produce. Where the the leaves are thick and succulent there is generally a predominance of sugar and mucilage and if the it is of a glacous tint, it was considered an even greater sign of the prevalence of sugar.

On the other hand the grasses with thin leaves, rough and of a light tint, they contained a greater portion of extractive matter. According to Sinclair's analysis, the grasses with very tall culms, spreading panicle, and leaves flat and rough, have a great quantity of saline matter and better extract combined with mucilage.

Forming artificial pastures

It was recommended to the farmers that forming artificial pastures needed great care in the process of improving the land. It needed to be prepared and improved in the best possible way. it needed to be dressed with lime, clay or manure,according to the element most required.

The dry sandy or chalky land which nature adorned with the grasses described above, could be greatly improved by adding large quantities of clay, which would produce a much superior herbage. 

In the History of Agricultural grasses -2 we will review the species used to create these artificial pastures.  

  Pasture grass.

Courtesy of Peter Barr CC BY-SA 2.0 License

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Grass-1 a look at common grasses.

Grasses-2- Spreading Millet.

Grasses-3- The Cockspur and Cock'sfoot grasses.

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