Medieval farms are saved from the plough

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Strip farming, a way of life that pre-dates the Norman Conquest, has been brought back from the edge of extinction thanks to last-minute government intervention.

Strip farming, a way of life that pre-dates the Norman Conquest, has been brought back from the edge of extinction thanks to last-minute government intervention.

Farmers at Braunton Great Field near Barnstaple, north Devon, had threatened to abolish the ancient system, claiming it was no longer profitable.

Modern, large-scale machinery is useless for the farms, which grow several crops side by side on narrow strips of land, an agricultural method which most believed had long been consigned to history books.

Had the farmers carried out their threat, the 360-acre Great Field, one of four such strip systems in the country, would have died out.

Now the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency, an executive arm of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), has stepped in to offer subsidies that will enable them to maintain their historical methods.

"It's a miracle that it has survived at all," said a spokesman for the agency. "An awful lot of the narrow strips have gone, but there are enough left to see what it would have been like hundreds of years ago and how the communities of the time would have worked."

Under the agreement, which is awaiting formal approval from Maff, farmers will be paid a fixed sum from the Countryside Stewardship budget to maintain the distinguishing features of their strips for 10 years.

Originally, each strip would have been farmed by one person, and in medieval times Braunton would have boasted perhaps 100 farmers. Just 50 years ago there were still 50, but today there are only 20 people farming on strips owned by five landlords and part of the field has already been sold to other parties. "Strip farmers face the question of economies of scale," said David Hartnoll, who holds 20 strips covering 80 acres and whose family has been farming on the Great Field for 600 years. "We're dealing with very small strips of land and modern machinery can't get on it or around the edge of the field, so you get less yield."

He is keen to take up the offer. " I think it's a good way to preserve the arrangement," he said. "It provides a small income for us and in return Maff gets an assurance the strips won't be sold off. All the farmers are aware it's a unique example and recognise its importance."

Strip farming is thought to have been introduced to Britain by Saxons from Jutland and north Germany, or Vikings from Scandinavia, where strip farming is still practised.

British strip farms survive only in Cornwall, Devon, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Documents have been uncovered that describe Braunton's strips in 1324. "Braunton is of interest because it's been demonstrated to be a real case of survival," said Frances Griffith, Devon County Council archaeologist.

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