The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Economy

Agriculture, one of Britain’s most important industries, supplies nearly two-thirds of the country’s food, directly employs about 2.5 per cent of the working population. However, its share of the gross domestic product is less than 3 per cent — the lowest figure among the developed capitalist countries. British agriculture is efficient, for it is based on modern technology and research.

Nearly 80 per cent of the land area is used for agriculture, the rest being mountain and forest or put to urban and other uses. Although the area for farming is declining by about 20,000 hectares a year to meet the needs of housing, industry and transport, the land in urban use is less than a tenth of the agricultural land. There are 12 million hectares under crops and grass. In hill country, where the area of cultivated land is often small, large areas are used for rough grazing. Soils vary from the poor ones of highland Britain to the rich fertile soils of low-lying areas in the eastern and southeastern parts of England. The cool temperate climate and the comparatively even distribution of rainfall contribute favourably to the development of agriculture. Most of the land is owned by big landlords. Farmers rent the land and hire agricultural workers to cultivate it. Part of the land belongs to banks, insurance companies.

There are about 254,000 farming units, of which about a half are able to provide fulltime employment for at least one person and account for over 90 per cent of total output. About 30,000 large farms (over 40 hectares) account for about half of total output. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland output from small-scale holdings (under 20 hectares) is more significant than in the rest of Britain. In general small farms dominate in the country. This is vividly seen from the following table:

Size of Farms as a Percentage of Total Number of Farms



2 Hect








120 Hect


However, due to tough competition, the number of small farms under 20 hectares is decreasing.

Britain produces nearly two-thirds of its total food requirements compared with some 46 per cent in 1960.

Home production of the principal foods is shown as a percentage by weight of total supplies in 1989 in the following table:

Food product


Meat 90
Eggs 99
Milk for human consumption 100
Cheese 66
Butter 112
Sugar 58
Wheat 131
Potatoes for human consumption 86

As seen from the table Britain is self-sufficient in milk, eggs, to a very great extent in meat, potatoes, wheat. However, she needs to import butter, cheese, sugar and some other agricultural products.

60 per cent of full-time farms is devoted mainly to dairying or beef cattle and sheep. This sector of agriculture accounts for three-fourths of agricultural production in value. Sheep and cattle are reared in the hill and moorland areas of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and northern and south-western England. Beef fattening occurs partly in better grassland areas, as does dairying and partly in yards on arable farms. Pig production is carried on in most areas but is particularly important in eastern Yorkshire and southern England, north-east Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the late 1980s there were about 12.2 million head of cattle, about 8 million pigs and 38.7 million head of sheep.

The picture of British farming is given in the map. As seen from the map there are three main types of farming: pastoral, arable, mixed. Arable farming takes the lead in the eastern parts of England and Scotland, whereas in the rest of the country pastoral and mixed farming are prevalent. Besides the three above mentioned types of farming there is another type of farming — crofting — which is still practised in the remote areas of northern and western Scotland. This pattern of cultivating a small area of land around the farm (the infield) and maintaining a much larger area of rough pasture for stock rearing (the outfield) is typical of crofting communities in Scotland and shows a clear adaptation to a difficult environment. There has been a great decline in crofting and it has virtually disappeared from large areas of the Highlands.

As regards the cereals wheat takes the lead. It is cultivated on over 40 per cent of the total cropland with an average annual yield of 12 million tonnes. The crop is mainly concentrated in the eastern parts of the country. Barley follows next covering about 40 per cent of the total cropland with an average annual yield of 92 million tonnes. Barley like wheat prevails in the eastern parts of England, especially in East Anglia and in the south-east, as well as in Central Scotland. Cropland used for oats has been reduced to about 2 per cent. The crop is cultivated mainly in the western and northern parts of England.

The potato crop is widespread all throughout the country. Large-scale potato and vegetable production is undertaken in the eastern and south-eastern parts of England, around the rivers Thames and Humber and in South Lancashire.

Sugar from home-grown sugar beet provides about 55 per cent of the requirements, most of the remainder being refined from raw sugar imported from developing countries. Sugar beet covers about 4 per cent of the total cropland.

The land utilized for horticulture is about 251,000 hectares of which vegetables grown in the open, excluding potatoes, cover about 73 per cent, fruit more than 20 per cent, flowers less than 5 per cent and protected crops (those grown under glass or plastic) less than 2 per cent of the land used for horticulture.

Britain’s second major source of food is the surrounding sea. The fishing industry provides about 70 per cent of British fish supplies, and is an important source of employment and income in a number of ports, especially those situated on the North Sea shore. In the 1980s there were about 17,000 fishermen in regular employment. The average annual landings of fish by British ships are about 783,000 tonnes. This marks a massive decline from landings earlier in the century and reflects the crisis which afflicts the industry.

Today the major fishing ports are Grimsby, Hull on the North Sea coast of England, Peterhead and Aberdeen in eastern Scotland and Ullapool in the north.

Forestry. Woodland covers an estimated 2.2 million hectares, about 9 per cent of the total land area of the country, 43 per cent is in England, 43 per cent in Scotalnd, 11 per cent in Wales and the remainder in Northern Ireland. The Forestry Commission is the national forestry authority in Great Britain and is responsible for timber production and forestry policy which includes wildlife conservation, the landscaping of plantations, and the provision of facilities for recreation. It complies with the directions given by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Britain imports over 90 per cent of its timber needs, mainly from Scandinavia and the Soviet Union. Private woods comprise 56 per cent of the total forest area in Great Britain.

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