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Water Management at Farm Scale

Reclamation is often considered to have been a large-scale activity, but it was seen to be equally important on the farm scale. Water was central to the farm and its management was one of the most effective means of improvement.  It was in managing the farm's water supply from farmstead to field, that farm-scale reclamation reached its highest levels of complexity.

Drainage was as important on the farm as on the moor. Effective drainage could turn an unusable bog into valuable improved pasture. This plan of Emmett’s Grange, from 1856, shows how Robert Smith integrated water management into his designed farmstead. Extensive drains are visible at Hangley Cleave, and were presumably successful, as Smith wrote to Sir T.D. Acland in 1851:

“Drainage is but little required except where springs occur…The bog you noticed leading to my house is now perfectly cured by deep drains.” (Acland and Sturge 1851, 31)

Once the land was reclaimed, the drained water could be harnessed for a range of uses elsewhere on the farm, such as in irrigation or to drive a water wheel. Overshot water wheels are known to have been used at several Exmoor farms, such as at West Harwood and North Furzehill Farms. Water from drains or diverted from springs was often collected in ponds, which acted as reservoirs. When needed the water was supplied by opening sluices at the pond, the water passing to the farmstead via a leat and delivered to the water wheel by a flume. Robert Smith was a keen exponent of employing Exmoor’s springs, rivers and streams to provide power for the farm. In 1856, he described some of the farmyard tasks a water wheel could power:

“To the water-wheel we must look for the future economy of the labour at the yard. It will perform the thrashing, chaff-cutting, grinding, root-slicing, &c” (Smith 1856, 355)

Water-power could even drive mechanical sheep shearing clippers, which remained in use at North Furzehill Farm in the 1920s. These have now been restored to full working order, along with the water wheel, by the farm's current owners.

On a modern 19th century farm, water was too valuable to be wasted once it had passed over the water wheel, and could be made to work harder still. It could be used to clean root crops and wash out farm buildings, but most importantly it could be used to irrigate the farm pasture. This was done by using a type of water meadow known locally as a catch meadow or field gutter system.

Traditionally, catch meadows were used from the winter into early spring. Water was diverted from a spring or stream along a water channel known as a carriage gutter to the hill or valley side to be irrigated. The farmer caused the carriage gutter to overflow, a film of water was passing over the pasture encouraging an early flush of growth. This allowed sheep to be turned out earlier, reducing the amount of winter feed required and relieving the pressure of the months immediately before the new spring growth, known as the ‘hungry gap’.

Such water meadows have been used in Devon and Somerset from at least the 17th century and probably earlier.  Some of Exmoor’s water meadows are associated with 17th century farmhouses, as at Brendon Barton Farm, and show evidence of having been maintained; the Brendon Barton water meadow has been replanned at least once, a possible indicator of long use.

Exmoor’s 19th century improvers advanced this technology by integrating it with other aspects of farm-scale water management, such as drainage and water power. As Smith described in 1851

“New meadows are being laid out upon nearly every farm, the desire being to unite the uses of the water-wheel with that of the meadow below the yards, which is universally arranged to receive the sewerage and water after it has passed the wheel.” (Smith 1851, 146).

In a fully integrated system of water management, water from springs and drains was used to drive the water wheel, and was then used to wash out cattle sheds or was mixed with manure in specially built ponds, dung pits or manure clamps. This enriched liquid manure could then be distributed directly onto the pasture by a water meadow. Where water meadows were made away from the farmstead, linhays could be built above them to achieve the same result, as can be seen at Emmett’s Grange. Farm scale water-management made the most of the farm’s available resources.

Cain Hegarty

Further Reading

Cook. H. & Williamson, T. (2007) Introducing Water Meadows, in Water Meadows; History, Ecology and Conservation, eds. Cook. H. & Williamson, T.

Taylor, C. (2007) The Archaeology of Water Meadows, in Water Meadows; History, Ecology and Conservation, eds. Cook. H. & Williamson, T.

Smith, R. 1851. Some Account of the Formation of Hill-side Catch-Meadows on Exmoor. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England 12, pp.139-148.

Smith, R. 1856 Bringing Moorland into Cultivation. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England 17, pp.349-394.

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