This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
The small holdings and small farms were slowly but surely depleted all over the country, either by the old landowners in the manner before mentioned, or by rich commercial persons purchasing estates and erecting thereon new or enlarging existing mansions, with gardens, stables, and home farms, farmsteads, cottages, everything brought up to date, even to the planting of new plantations as compensation for stubbing up old hedges and the encumbering scrubby trees; while in not rare instances much land was planted with the object of sheltering and beautifying, also rearing and harbouring game with a secondary consideration as regarded the trees growing into timber.
The Agricultural Gang Act was passed in 1867 prohibiting the employment of children of less than eight years old in agricultural labour, and in 1871 the country generally was in the heigh-day of prosperity, the industrial classes were able to bear a general rise in prices, and a large increase in wages was a prominent subject throughout the year 1872. The agricultural labourers formed the Agricultural Labourers' Union, and though this was followed by a small rise in wages, it was soon clear that the real remedy for the great poverty and distress of the agricultural labourers was to be found in some change in the land laws which would enable the toilers of the fields to acquire small freeholds which they might cultivate in their own interests.
In 1873 the Select Committee to inquire into the Game Laws elicited evidence of the destructive nature of hares and rabbits to agricultural crops. The improvements effected by landowners in the way of beautifying their properties by planting forest trees, mostly quick growing, such as larch, Scots, Corsican and Austrian pines, Norway spruce, and silver fir, to form plantations, clumps and belts, or adding to existing woods so as to render them more game-holding, the old woods being too open at bottom, resulted in great contention between landlord and tenant as to who had first claim to the game. The Ground Game Act was passed in 1880, and was, no doubt, the outcome of the Select Committee on the Game Laws in 1873, accelerated by landowners having much land tenantless.
The Agricultural Holdings Bill, providing for transactions between tenant and landlord with respect to compensations for improvements, was passed in 1875, but was rendered practically useless by landlords being allowed to contract out of its provisions. This, especially on estates over which the shooting was let by landlords over the heads of tenant-farmers, together with the hand-rearing of winged game, became a serious impediment to agricultural progress. Inclement weather and a disappointing harvest in 1879 was seized upon as timely for a reduction of rents, tenants not being able to go on unless they were granted a fair reduction. It was urged that the passing of the Ground Game Act would afford some relief, the right of killing hares and rabbits being at least a mitigation ranging from 2s. 6d. to 5s. per acre. But it was not much of a concession to the farmer, for the reservation of winged game implied supervision, and despite thereof, offences against the Game Laws increased, there being more convictions for poaching and fowl stealing than other misdemeanours, excepting the Licences Acts, in rural districts.
An Agricultural Holdings Bill for England and Scotland was passed in 1883, the previous harvest not having been up to the average, and prospects were dull. The price of corn had fallen to 41s. yd. per quarter, and in 1884 it dropped to 35s. 8d. Farmers could not grow corn, they said, at a profit under 40s., per quarter ! The Highland crofters, whose grievances were not unlike some of the Irish and English tenants, in so far as they consisted of demands for rental which the produce of the land would not enable them to pay, and the penalty of eviction without any future means of living. An additional hardship to the crofters was found in the enormous extension and eager acquisition of land by the proprietors of already existing deer-forests and tracts of country devoted to sport. Two million acres in the Highlands, once devoted to pasture, over which the crofters' cattle used to roam, are now entirely used for the artificial maintenance of deer in a wild state. Then there has been a consolidation into large sheep-farms of the superior classes of pasture which used to be grazed over by the mixed sheep of the small owners.
Thus the men, with knowledge of pastoral and agricultural processes, and equipped in some degree with the stock and implements of husbandry, were debarred from becoming substantial occupiers of small holdings under lease, or to be the managers of land belonging to themselves; and the cottars and crofters were not relieved by the Commission of Inquiry or resolution of Parliament in 1884.
The small holdings in England had practically disappeared from rural districts in 1885. The actual loss of arable area in the interval covered from 1875 to 1895, which may be said to cover the period of agricultural depression, was 2,137,000 acres, and of this corn (wheat is that meant in this connection) growing accounted for more than 1,900,000 acres. The increase of cattle, sheep and pigs hardly accords with the extended area under grass, while it represents at least one-fifth less hands employed on farms, and in conjunction with the displacing of labour through the introduction of machinery, reduced the labour needed on farms, together with the landowners suspending improvements on their estates, fully one-third. Thus the rural districts were depopulated, and for what? The bogey of protection!
The loss of the allotment and small-holder in rural districts appears to have been partly due to the antipathy of the local authorities, for allotments and small holdings have been in vogue from the earliest times, and the provision of land for labourers has long been a recognized principle of English law. The Poor Law of Elizabeth gave power to the overseers to acquire land for allotments, and during her reign, and also that of Queen Anne, areas under cultivation by labourers were greatly extended, the labourer ever taking a chance of bettering himself on his native soil, and experience has shown that he makes very good use of it.