The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

FISHERIES AND AGRICULTURE

Category: Economy

The Fisheries. In round figures the fisheries of theUnit­ed Kingdom employ about 65,000 men. The annual catch is about a million tons, and the fishing fleet numbers over 12,000 vessels.Britain’s share is about 5 per cent of the world’s total production of sea-fish. On the other hand, the inland and freshwater fisheries are comparatively unimportant, with the exception of salmon. River fishing inBritain is now mainly reserved for sport and recreation, whilst the waters of many a once-famous salmon or trout stream have become polluted and almost devoid of fish.

Although the fishing grounds visited by British vessels and from which fish are landed at British ports extend from Greenland, Iceland, Bear Island, and Spitzbergen on the north to Morocco on the south, and from the Barents Sea on the east to the west of Scotland and the south-west of Ire­land, it is the character of the Continental Shelf surrounding the British Isles which must be regarded as in the main re­sponsible for the rise to importance of the British fishing industry.

TheBritish Islesrest on a broad Continental Shelf and are entirely surrounded by shallow water. The North Sea, except for a deep channel off the coast ofNorway, is every­where less than 100 fathoms in depth.

There is in theNorth Sea, on the whole, a gradual decrease in the depth from north to south; but this gradual shallowing is interrupted by numerous banks and deeper depressions called pits. The largest and the most important of the banks is the well-known Dogger Bank, which, with an area of some­thing like 7,000 square miles, is covered by water only 10—20 fathoms deep. Not only do these shallow seas with their sandy or rock-free floors afford excellent fishing grounds where the trawl net can be used to the greatest advantage, but they also provide spawning and breeding grounds which are ob­viously essential for the maintenance of the supply of fish.

Within the last half-century the British fishing industry has undergone a complete change. This may be summed up in two words “centralisation” and “industrialisation”. It is a commonplace of history that the British fishing grounds form a nursery for the seamen of both our Navy and our Mer­chant Navy. Almost every cove on the rock-girt coast of the west has its little break-water, its little quota of fishing- vessels, and, nestling in the sheltered valley behind, a little fishing village. The same is true of the sandy estuaries and coves along the eastern coast. In the days of the Armada these fishing villages provided the bulk of the sailors for the British Navy.

Less than 5 per cent of the fish now landed in theBritish Islesis landed at these small old fishing villages. The indus­try is now concentrated in five of the ports on the east coast of Britain (Aberdeen, Hull, Grimsby, Yarmouth, Lowestoft) and one, Fleetwood, on the west coast. During the season in the hey-day of the industry as many as a thousand boats might have been out from Yarmouth and a day’s catch 4,000 tons, or three-quarters of a herring for every man, woman and child in the British Isles, although present-day landings are much smaller.

The majority of the fish are caught from the drifters and trawlers. It is usual to divideBritain’s trawlers into two fleets — the near-water fleet and the distant water-fleet — and the vessels are classified by length. Distant-water vessels are in many cases200 feetin length, driven by steam engines using oil fuel and with a crew of about 20. They are fitted with modern aids to navigation — radar, echo-sounders, and wireless.

The trade in fish and fish-products of theUnited King­domis interesting. The bulk of the exports is represented by herring and cod, a very large proportion of the imports by canned salmon and sardines.

Farming. It is important to realise the position which farm­ing today occupies in the life ofBritain. In the course of the great industrial expansion of the industrial revolution and after, whenBritain became engaged more and more in the task of supplying manufactured goods to an ever-expanding world market, home production of food came gradually to be neglected, almost forgotten by the growing number of town-dwellers. Sorely strained by the First World War, the Second World War changedBritain from a creditor na­tion to a debtor nation forced to go out into the world and buy food and raw materials at competitive prices to be paid for by the exports no longer eagerly demanded by the world’s markets.

During the Second World War the danger of starvation by blockade forced a new development on home farm produc­tion. After the war, shortage of foreign currency continued to emphasise the vital importance of farming in the homeland.

It is quite wrong, however, to consider farming inBritainas unimportant even during the depression years of the nineteen-thirties. Although only 6 per cent of the occupied population was employed in agriculture inBritain, about1 in10 of every man, woman and child was dependent upon the land directly or indirectly for a livelihood.

About 20 per cent of the British people are officially classed as “rural dwellers” — they live in “rural districts” as opposed to “urban districts”, towns and cities, but only 10 per cent really live in the country — in the isolated farms and villages. But they are well distributed and if we include rough grazing with farm lands, small holdings, allotments and commons used for grazing then something like 84 per cent of the surface ofEnglandandWalesis used in some way or another for agricultural purposes.

In a broad sense British farming may be termed intensive as opposed to the extensive farming widely practiced in newer lands, such asCanada, theUnited States,AustraliaandSouth America. In other words, the British farmer cultivates a com­paratively small tract of land producing a variety of products— food crops and animal products.

There are very marked contrasts between one part ofBritainand another in the type of farming. In the main the reasons are to be found in the physical conditions of the land, in relief, soil and climate, though accessibility — especially to roads and so to markets — also plays a large part.

Hill sheep farms are usually found on the margins of mountain moorland — over several hundred acres of which the sheep roam except in winter — and the farmhouse is of­ten some distance from a public road and so difficult of access. The life is hard and lonely, the returns small.

The keeping of cows for milk has become the major occu­pation of farmers over a large part of Lowland Britain. Whilst much of the east ofEnglandis ploughland and the farmers sell wheat, barley, oats and sugar beet off the farm most of them keep animals also and milk is often important. Such intensive and specialised types of farming as market garden­ing, horticulture and fruit farming exist only where there is a combination of favourable physical factors and economic

factors (such as nearness or access to markets, casual labour supplies when needed for harvesting).

Although there are large farms inBritain, most of the farms are small; one third of them less than100 acresand a half between 100 and 500. Where land is very fertile farms tend to be smaller; inEast Anglia, where the land is drier and less fertile, the farms are bigger. By any calculation the100 acresfarm is three or four times too small for effi­ciency. Yet although there is a tendency to combine small farms into bigger holdings of the kind more suitable for mechanised farming it is not likely that the picture will be seriously changed.

From The British Isles by L. D. Stamp and S. H. Beaver; Life in Britain by J. D. Scott

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