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Grazing, pasture and common land

Detail from 1635 map showing animals grazing

 

Farmers who owned animals needed to have somewhere to graze them. In the early medieval period there was plenty of waste land which could be used for grazing. But later on more people lived at Laxton and they needed more food. More waste land was ploughed up for arable crops, and it became necessary to limit the number of animals that could be grazed. This limitation was called 'stinting' and was occurring at Laxton by 1635.

Animals could be grazed in four areas of Laxton. The first was the two areas of Commons, or waste land: Cocking Moor (or Westwood Common), and Town (or East Moor) Common. These were quite small in area, so only the poor tenants of particular cottages in Laxton, who had no land in the open fields, were allowed to graze animals there. Until 1908 they could graze 20 sheep or their equivalent in other beasts or horses until 8 October of every year. In 1908 the number was reduced to ten sheep, three beasts or two horses. During the winter months the animals had to be overwintered in the villagers' crofts. If people tried to graze more animals than they were allowed, they would be fined in the manorial court. For example, in the records of the court which met in 1667, a man was presented for 'overstocking of commons with his sheepe having more in summer than he maintained in winter', and fined 5 shillings. In the mid-20th century there were 104 rights of common on Westwood Common, but little demand for grazing. Earl Manvers acquired all the rights and enclosed the land in 1953. Grazing rights over East Moor Common still exist today.

The Commons were an important resource, and had to be protected from outsiders. Document 1 is a record of a court case in the 17th century.

People who farmed land in the open fields were allowed to graze their animals there at certain times of year. When the harvest was over, the church bell would ring, which meant that all the villagers who had strips in the open fields could drive their animals on to the fields. Animals were allowed to graze on the stubble of the wheat field until 15 October. After that time this field was needed for ploughing in preparation for the spring corn. The animals were then driven to the spring field, where they could graze on the stubble until 23 November. Cows and horses had to leave at that point, and were taken into barns for the winter, but as this field was to be fallow the following year the sheep were allowed to stay until the following October. Their droppings provided manure for the field. Some people allowed their animals to come on to the stubble too soon. The court records for 1663 tell us that one man was fined 1 shilling 6 pence for 'Putting his beasts on the cornfield before the corn was led forth without the burleyman's consent'.

Until the 1730s there were two other areas of grazing: the common meadows, and the 'sykes'. In 1635 there were four common meadows: Long Meadow, Southbound Meadow, Shitterpool Meadow and East Kirk Ing. The grass growing in the meadows throughout the summer was harvested for hay to feed livestock over the winter months. It was the custom for haymaking to be finished at Lammas (1st August), and then the meadows were 'broken' which meant that animals could be brought in to graze on them. The animals could stay on the fields until 1st November. Thereafter the meadows would become too wet and would be damaged if the animals were allowed to stay. These areas of grazing were enclosed in the early 1730s when the trustees of the 2nd Duke of Kingston re-organised the estate.

'Sykes' or 'sikes' were unploughed areas of the open fields on which grass always grew. The animals grazing on the sykes were tethered so that they could not eat the crops. The right to graze a certain number of animals was called 'gait right' or 'gate right', and was a form of stinting. Sometimes people tried to tether more animals than they should. The court records in 1682 tell us that a person was fined 3s 4d for 'tethering more horses than he had gates for'. Grazing on the sykes was abolished in the early 1730s when the meadows were enclosed. Instead, the grass was left to grow for hay. Since then the custom has been that the harvested grass has been auctioned off in lots to any Laxton villager who wishes to bid for it, and the proceeds shared out between the gait owners.

The regulations for grazing were set by the jury of the manor court. New regulations were drawn up in 1686, 1688, 1789 and 1821. In 1871, bye-laws were drawn up at a vestry meeting and not by the jury. However, offenders continued to be presented at the manorial court. Document 2 is the revised regulations published in 1908.

In 1680 and 1681 there was a dispute between Laxton and Moorhouse over 'rights of common', which included grazing rights over the open fields. Document 3 and Document 4 explain the quarrel.

 

Next page: The manorial court

 

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