Statistical Survey of the County of Clare, 1808

By Hely Dutton

Chapter II - Section 2

Course of Crops

THIS, although the most material part of agriculture, is in general the least understood; one, in which the greatest abuses prevail, and which all proprietors of land are deeply interested to effect a change into a better mode, without which no permanent improvement can ever be expected. We may continue to import Scotch swing, and English wheel-ploughs, and other implements of utility or whim, but, unless we import along with them the best practices of each country, and steadily pursue them, in opposition to the old school stewards, it will only serve to bring them into disrepute with those, who are but too ready to catch at any opportunity to decry practices they do not understand. Sir Edward O’Brien has brought over a Scotch steward, to whom he pays sixty guineas per annum and his diet, and who has made a rapid change for the better in the farming of Dromoland: now if he only makes the ground produce half a barrel per acre more than formerly was done, this alone would make an addition of at least sixty guineas on a tillage farm of such extent (one hundred and thirty acres); but this is a very trifling part of the advantages to be derived from the skill and activity of such a man;* the value of his example, to so numerous a tenantry as Sir Edward possesses, is above all calculation. This is one of the happy effects of a resident and intelligent landlord. At Dromoland corn is not stacked in the field; it is carried home from the stook, ricked, and immediately thatched, which saves much corn and labour.

It is very much the custom in this county, as well as in Galway, to allow stewards and gardeners to become small farmers and jobbers in cattle, &c. by which their employers’ business is always neglected, and frequently themselves injured; they are almost always in debt to their masters.

It is no uncommon thing to hear gentlemen, after having been in England for a few months, descant with rapture on that vast superiority of the agriculture of that country, and, by way of contrast, patriotically compare them with the worst of ours. This may in some measure be accounted for from their associating with those English gentlemen, who have made this most difficult science their particular study, and by their fashionable lounges to Wobourn abbey, Holkam, and those other seats, where improved practices are conducted in a manner and on a scale, that very few of our travelling agriculturists are willing to try; and, if they did make a beginning, I fear it is the character of too many of our gentlemen to grow tired, or grudge the necessary expence to bring things to bear. Had they made excursions into some of the remote counties of England, they would have perceived practices to the full as absurd as our very worst; they would have seen four or more horses or oxen in a plough, with two drivers; they would also have seen repeated corn crops taken, without an intervening green one; lands undrained, full of rushes and weeds, &c. &c. 

That the improved practices of the sister country are superior to any in the world, will, I imagine, be readily conceded; but, ceteris paribus, the English are not universally so very far before us, as their improvements in other branches of science would lead us to imagine.

If the wretched course of cropping pursued in this county, that I have before mentioned, was only that of small farmers or cottiers, ignorance of better practices might be pleaded in extenuation; but when we see them obstinately maintained by those, who, from their education and fortune, should be better informed, no animadversion, however severe, ought to be withheld. What improvements can be expected from tenants, when landlords are guilty of those very blameable practices? In the course of my professional visits I have frequently expostulated with small farmers (great ones I always found too conceited of their own old ideas to listen with even patience to any change) on the ultimate ruin they would bring on their families by persevering in such a system of extreme deterioration, and at the same time endeavoured to impress them with the superior immediate (without that it was useless to speak to a poor man) and future profit of alternate green and white crops; the answer universally was, "What will you have a poor man do? Surely if our practices were bad, my Lord A. or Sir B. or Mr. C. would not pursue them." Until landed proprietors see with their own eyes, or procure those, from whom the mist of prejudice has been dispelled, to conduct their business, this must ever remain a reproach and a loss to them and their tenantry. The ignorance, and consequent obstinacy of stewards of the old school, has tended more to prevent improvement in Ireland, than all other causes united; those, that I have had opportunities of seeing in this county, (with few exceptions) are ignorant in every respect of the management of a demesne or farm, and are at best bad overseers of labourers; and those, to whom many trust their property in buying and selling cattle, and who are all attached to stout bone, and a thick plump hock, or, according to an old Westmeath saying, beef to the heels, know no more of the value of a beast, than to ask, when selling, a great deal more than the value, and, when buying, to offer a great deal less. For the instruction of those few farmers, who are willing, but have not had any opportunity of seeing better practices, or, from the very high price of modern agricultural publications, have not found it convenient to procure those, where such practices are detailed, I shall take the liberty of suggesting a course of crops and management, that will not only give a superior present profit, but, after any length of time, will leave the ground in still better heart, than when they began. The ruinous course I have before mentioned, is either to burn or manure, for, 1st, potatoes; 2d, potatoes; sometimes 3d, potatoes; 4th, wheat; and then follow repeated crops of oats, until the soil is completely exhausted; it remains then for several years almost totally unproductive, not even producing weeds but of the humblest growth. If, instead of this scourging course, which may be compared to a spendthrift living on the principal of his money, the following is adopted on light soils, (and of this description a great part of the county consists,) I am very confident it will never be abandoned; 1st, potatoes, either burned for, or manured; 2d, wheat or barley; 3d, clover and ray-grass, sowed on the ground, occupied by the last crop, in the first moist weather in April or May, to remain for two years, and to be cut for soiling in the house; then the ground to be broken up in October, and remain until April, when it should be well harrowed, and stretched into furrows, thirty inches or three feet asunder, and manured from the dung produced by the cattle, that had been fed on the clover in summer. The potatoes now, and for the future, should be planted in drills, and landed by the plough, and not in the expensive method of many in this county, who land their drills with spades and shovels; after this the same course is to be repeated. In place of wheat or barley, oats may be substituted, as the straw is much more valuable for feeding store cattle in winter. The farmer may rest assured that, in point of immediate profit alone, he will find a material difference, and the ground, instead of being greatly impoverished, will be vastly improved, both in fertility and freedom from weeds. 

The introduction of vetches, rape, turnips, &c. &c. must be gradually introduced, when a taste for improvement begins to dawn in the mind, when the cash he has made by the former course begins to burn his pocket, and when the value of the clover gives him a favourable idea of the great value of green crops, and will convince him how erroneous the present notion of farmers is, that nothing but corn could pay rent; until that period arises, (and I trust it is not far off,) it would only perplex and frighten those, for whose benefit this course is suggested. Whilst the small farmer is pursuing this profitable course, it is hoped those of more and better information, and larger income, will lead the way in the introduction and cultivation, on steady principles, of the best kind of green crops, in the most improved manner, and consumed in the house by stock; then, and not before, we may expect such good practices will be generally adopted. Irish farmers are not that race of obstinate fools they are sometimes called by absentees, or their interested or ignorant agents or stewards; they are no more wedded to the customs of their forefathers, than the English, or those of any other country of the same rank. I have ever found them ready to listen, and willing to be instructed, if gentle methods are used; but the language of petulant reproach, so often used to them, is by no means calculated to make proselytes: how quietly an English farmer would bear such language from a stranger riding along the road, as, "Damn you, you stupid rascal, why don’t you use two horses to your plough?" He certainly would return the compliment, and perhaps might make some additions to it.

The practise of ploughing with only two horses or oxen (still a driver) has been adopted within a few years by many, who formerly used never less than four, sometimes six; example here, as in all other cases, is worth volumes of precept. Fallowing is still practised, but not to the extent it formerly was; the great encrease in the cultivation of potatoes has lessened this odious custom; the rise in rents too has undoubtedly contributed to this desirable abolition; low rents have always tended to make farmers indolent. It is to be hoped, that farmers will at length become sensible of the loss they sustain by this triennial tax, more ruinous in its consequences than those, about which there is always so much croaking; but this is a voluntary one, therefore more palatable. Two successive crops of wheat are sometimes taken, but not often. According to the slovenly mode of the fallowing in this county, and I may add, the greater part of Ireland, it has not the intended effect of destroying weeds, but with respect to perennial weeds, that propagate by the root, a quite contrary one, as it only divides the roots and encreases them; for few ever think of picking them off, and annual and biennial weeds are permitted to ripen their seeds, before the ground is ploughed; the proper period for this operation is, when the young weeds are an inch or two high, when they are either turned into the ground and become a trifling manure, or are exposed to the sun and air, and destroyed. It is by no means uncommon in this county, as well as in the county of Dublin, to see thistles, docks, rag-weed, and other pernicious sorts in full seed, before they are turned in by the plough, or rather left with their heads sticking up between the furrows, where they come to maturity.

The extraordinary exertions made by small farmers and cottiers to procure manure (in many cases to the very great injury of the roads,) would lead one to think, that very little attention, aided by example from landlords, would easily induce them to abandon this practice: for, to accomplish the accumulation of this sine qua non of agriculture, cows and other beasts are generally kept in the house in winter, and fed with potatoes, usually boiled and mixed with bran, if the price is reasonable. Of the value of potatoes for this purpose they are so perfectly sensible, that it would be an easy matter to induce them to cultivate a small portion of ground with rape, vetches, clover, turnips, or any of those other valuable plants, which the improvements in modern husbandary have so happily introduced into field culture. If we advert to the endless variety of soils, in which the potatoe thrives, to the universal knowledge of the mode of its cultivation, to its ameliorating properties, especially if planted in drills, to its undisputed fattening quality, to the superiority it possesses over every other vegetable production for cattle, of keeping good for upwards of twelve months, to the ease and perfect safety, with which it is kept in large quantities, and to many other advantages, which must occur to every agriculturist, it deserves the most serious attention of those enlightened farmers, to ascertain, by steady and well conducted experiments, whether it should not in a great measure supersede the use of many others, especially since the introduction of spring wheat.

Beans were formerly sowed to a great extent in the rich lands near the river Shannon and Fergus, but this culture has greatly declined. Mr. O’Brien of Cratilow had a very fine crop of beans in 1807, and the same year, after pulling the beans, mowed a very abundant crop of hay, but it must be remembered it was on corcass land: it is the opinion of a gentlemen perfectly conversant in the nature of corcass lands, that, if beans and oats were sowed alternately, they would produce abundant crops for ever. When these lands are first embanked, they are of such fertility, that little else than straw is produced. Captain Palliser near Bunratty reclaimed a good deal of this land; the first year barley, all straw; then seven successive crops of potatoes without manure; and in 1807 I saw the oats, that followed these; it was very long in the straw, and well headed; he intends to follow this with several crops of the same grain, and is certain of each crop encreasing in productiveness.

I have heard it asserted that, when the ground, from repeated oat crops, becomes full of couch-grass and other weeds, and somewhat impoverished, a crop of beans is taken, which not only cleans the ground, but restores its usual fertility, and they commence again with exhausting crops of oats. A very common course on corcass ground is; 1st, potatoes, without manure; 2d, wheat; 3d, wheat; 4th, oats, with clover and hay-seeds; 5th, very fine meadow; it may be easily judged, what ground it is, that could produce such meadow after such a scourging rotation.

* The steward of the old school has little less, computing, with his wages, the value of cows grass, potatoe ground, house, turf, and a number of etceteras, which the indolence of his employer permitted him to take; but the losses by the idleness of the workmen under him, from their considering him of the same rank as themselves, leave all calculation behind.

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