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Changing land use north of the A40 24 Feb 2022 (Notes from the North) The first in a series of Notes from the North looks at a new crop that was sown last year and was recently harvested - by sheep

1: February 2022

Dog walkers, ramblers and others who venture across the A40 will have noticed a change in land use over the winter in the fields owned until recently by Corpus Christi College.[1] These form an L-shape that goes from the old Salt Way in the west to the disused tarmac road in the south.

Former city dwellers like me may have been surprised to see these fields, which had previously been sown with oats or left fallow, ploughed up and left bare for weeks before being sown with turnips. Turnips? At the time I thought, “Are there enough people who still eat them to make it worthwhile?”

Later I discovered that turnips have been a fodder crop for livestock for centuries. It is even possible that the Romans introduced them, but “they appear as market garden crops for human consumption in the late sixteenth century and were being grown as animal fodder on a handful of farms by the 1620s”.[2]

Here is William Cobbett in 1823, during his “Rural Rides” around southern England:

“These grass-fields give hay for the sheep and cattle in winter, or, at any rate, they do all that is not done by the white turnips . . . White turnips are more easily got than Swedes; they may be sown later; and, with good hay, they will fat cattle and sheep.”

Sure enough, over winter, sheep appeared on the L-shaped fields, which were cordoned off with electric fencing, slightly reducing the number of informal footpaths available to Eynsham residents. It will be interesting to see what happens next. Will another crop be sown? The sheep will have fertilised the soil in a way that was normal practice when Eynsham parish was farmed in the open-field system.

Meanwhile, the cattle at New Wintles Farm are still in their winter quarters, and will probably not be put out to graze until May. You may have seen them in the summer, looking picturesque in the morning or evening sun, but they can be a little alarming. G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “A cow stared at me and called a committee.” You sometimes wonder what that committee is going to decide . . .

The loss of the fallow fields in the L-shape to a crop of turnips has a down side for biodiversity. It was previously a favoured spot for yellowhammers, for instance, and was clearly full of small rodents, as last year a barn owl was criss-crossing the fields as well as red kites and the occasional kestrel. However, I have been told that the valuable wild arable plants will grow back again – despite the herbicide that was sprayed on them – if they are allowed to do so.

[1] These fields are now part of the Eynsham Land Pool Trust, the consortium which, together with Oxfordshire County Council, has put forward the land for the proposed Salt Cross Garden Village.

[2] Mark Overton: Agricultural Revolution in England: The transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500–1850.

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