Friday, June 27, 2014

Environmental effects of enclosure

April's Environmental History has a review by David Zylberberg of Shirley Wittering's Ecology and Enclosure: The Effect of Enclosure on Society, Farming and the Environment in South Cambridgeshire, 1798-1850 (Oxbow, 2013). There is a lot of theoretical writing on the environmental effects of enclosure; this book seems to provide some real environmental-historical data. Zylberberg writes that Wittering:
is able to demonstrate the adaptability of open-field agriculture and refute some of its eighteenth- and twentieth-century critics. It is refreshing to read a discussion of enclosure that focuses on the actual crops planted rather than trying to extrapolate agricultural change from rental values or the intellectual history of improvement. Moreover, this focus demonstrates that the agricultural changes that followed enclosure in South Cambridgeshire increased the number of sheep that could be pastured but did not lead to higher grain yields.

The chapter on the ecological consequences of enclosure is the most original and of interest to environmental historians. Wittering uses the notes of Cambridge botanists, maps, and receipts of timber sales to trace the presence and location of plant species. She is able to demonstrate that the location of trees changed as many older ones were cut down to pay for enclosure while hedges were planted along field boundaries. Another major contribution comes from comparing the grass and flower species in fields at various dates. In this regard, she can demonstrate the loss of heathland flowers and bird habitat as former sheep pastures were plowed up to plant grain following enclosure. Current efforts to preserve characteristically English environments and reintroduce fauna will benefit from these holistic descriptions of Cambridgeshire ecology. 

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