Digglum Bestiaruim ~ The Digglers' Crest

The Digglers

Section 3. Agriculture

Although agriculture for over two centuries has been overshadowed by industry, the region has not lost its dominantly rural character, both urban and industrial development being largely restricted to the valleys. Most of the land on the valley sides and shelves is still agricultural while the highest and the steepest parts of the area are moorland. The early development of the woollen industry was due mainly to the meagre living that agricultural afforded the farmers of that period this in turn was a consequence of the severe physical limitations imposed upon agriculture in this region. These factors, a combination of high altitude, a harsh and wet climate, poor drainage and thin soils, give rise to poor land. The physical limitations therefore affect the choice of farming systems restricting it to sheep and cattle rearing which employ relatively few people. At first sheep were dominant but later cattle were reared increasingly and great attention was paid to the growing of hay for fodder.

Diagram 9 is an extract from the Oldham Chronicle describing hay making scenes in Saddleworth by Lilian Hirst.

Few other crops have ever been grown and even these were, and still are, for animal consumption. The large area covered by cotton-grass mosses has never been of much use for agriculture. A great deal more is suitable only for sheep grazing, owing to steep slopes and thin soils.

The heavy rainfall together with the effects of altitude on temperature do not allow other cereals to ripen and so their only use is to provide fodder for the animals. The mean annual rainfall varies from just below 42 inches to over 55 inches on the high moorlands. The high rainfall causes leaching in the soil adding to its natural acidity – see diagrams 10 and 11 of the Ministry of Agriculture soil analysis report. Atmospheric pollution is another problem. The prevailing wind from the south-west causes pollution from the industrial towns of the south-west Lancashire to drift over the area, blackening the buildings and the vegetation. The soils of the area are thin on the slopes and only become deeper in the larger valleys and there the glacial deposits occur. The grit areas are covered by a very acidic, sandy soi, whilst on the shales, along the outcrops of which lines of springs occur, clayey soils are found. Smoke pollution through heavy sulphuric acid concentration increases their acidity.

The grit uplands have nearly the whole of their improved land in grass. There are very few arable fields. The unimproved land can be subdivided into true moorland and rough pasture and these can be best illustrated by a transect across the valley – see diagram 10 below.

In map 8 it is noticeable that the fields showing improvement are the hay fields – see map showing the agriculture in Thorns Clough.

True moorland is dominated at highest levels by cotton-grass mosses which are almost completely unimprovable and are little suited either to grazing animals or even game birds. The rainfall is heavy and the peat is thick. These factors combined with the flat nature of the upland produce boggy conditions and these mosses cover much of the area over 1,200 ft. On windswept summits 1,400-1,700 ft. where greater slope induces better drainage on peat haggs and on other sloping or dissected areas at high altitude, the bilberry becomes dominant. Often at lower altitudes the drier conditions produce heather moors characterised by Calluna Vulgaris. These are of quite small extent in this area where most of the land over 700ft. has more than 45 inches of rainfall. See graphs on the following pages showing annual rainfall, temperature and hours of sunshine for the Saddleworth area. Thus, there is usually only a narrow fringe of acidic grassland between the cotton grass mosses and the improved pasture. There are three types of acidic grassland, the best type of rough pasture is that dominated by the two shallow-rooting grasses, Agrostis tenuis and Festuca ovina. The areas dominated by Nardus stricta or mat grass are almost useless for pasture and occur frequently on the high hills which are not peat-covered and on steep slopes. Molinia grassland occurs along with rushes on flat, ill-drained upland areas and although it is a very poor grass, it is often useful for pasture in early summer. There is very little woodland but there is some planting of conifers around the reservoirs but these attempts at re-afforestation have generally been unsuccessful and it would appear that an important factor is the exposure to the retarding and injurious effects of the wind and atmospheric pollution and also the afforested areas are too small to afford the necessary mutual protection. Where no trees are planted, bracken tends to creep up the valley sides.

On the grit soils, grass is usually of poor quality. The acidity makes it difficult for rye grass and clover to get established but the grass sward is capable of improvement under treatment – see the Ministry of Agriculture report. Mineral fertilisers and lime are however necessary to correct the natural tendency to soil acidity. Even at its best the quality of the grassland on the grit is not very high and even throughout the grazing season many of the farmers have to feed supplementary rations.

See diagrams 11 and 12 showing annual rainfall, temperatures and hours of sunshine for the Saddleworth area.

A report in The Mossley and Saddleworth Reporter on 5th June 1964 describes a cloudburst that occurred on the previous Saturday at about 3:30pm which swamped the Saddleworth district. Water collected above the valley at Standedge, it broke through the retaining road wall and flooded the former mill reservoirs, their dam walls could not hold back the volume of water and consequently a flash flood occurred. The Standedge Road disintegrated, in Harrop Court the sewer collapsed, Carr Lane Bridge collapsed, Huddersfield Road closed due to huge boulders deposited by the torrent, Hey Wood Farm left in ruins and the town of Diggle under feet of water. The flood damage bill amounted to £200,000.

Map 10 shows how the valley is utilized for agricultural purposes. The main user of the land is Alan Rhodes, a sheep farmer at Harrop Green Farm. His farm is situated half a mile north-east of Diggle. The farm is 775ft. above sea level. He uses 48 acres of land but most of this is rented from other farmers and all of this is rough grazing. He owns 308 sheep consisting of four breeds. Lonk and Swale he rears for meat and sends to Huddersfield Market. Masham and Cheviot he rears for breeding and sends to Skipton Market. All his sheep are sheared and the fleeces are used by North England Wool. He also owns 1050 poultry. The majority of his income is from the sale of the sheep and the wool but he also retails eggs. His income is supplemented by his job as a caretaker at a local primary school. He is also an agent for Drakes Corn of Honley and sells food stuffs to the local farmers. Part of his farmhouse is used for tourism - bed and breakfast. He is certainly a very enterprising farmer as part of a field is used for the storage of caravans and his large Dutch barn is often the venue for local barn dances!

Thurstons Farm, which is owned by Jack Beaumont is situated 875ft. Above sea-level. The farm house was established in 1791. Twenty nine beef cattle, mainly Angus and Charolais are kept on the sixteen acre farm. Ten acres are used for silage. Chelford market is used as a retail outlet for their beef cattle. The farm does not provide the main source of income. Mr. Beaumont has a dairy business in Mossley and his wife has on in the Grotten area of Oldham.

Jim France, Red Lane Farm rents several fields in Thorns Clough (see map 10) to graze forty-six beef cattle. He uses Huddersfield Market as a retail outlet for the cattle.

Poultry are kept by a number of small land owners in Thorns Clough. Photo 22 shows a hen-house and some free-range pure-breeds hens which are kept by myself at Five Acres.

On acquiring five acres of land at Thurstons in 1982, I contacted The Ministry Of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, A.D.A.S. Department to produce an in-depth study of the soil and vegetation. I also sought their advice on how the land could be improved.

Map 12 shows Five Acres in Thorns Clough. 1,2 and 3 indicates the site of soil profiles – see diagrams 15, 16 and 17.

The profiles are typical podsols. Sharply contrasted horizons and strongly acid with pH usually below 5.5. The pH is 4.3.