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Monday, 18 February 2013

Looking to the past for the future – an environmental historian perspective

As an environmental historian who has researched both the environmental history of the Middle Ages and contemporary ecological restoration, I brought these two interests together in a study of medieval wood pasture regimes and its implications for modern restoration (Jørgensen 2013). The study examines pig husbandry in English wood pastures from about 1000 to 1500 AD.  A wide-range of data sources, including financial records, agricultural treatises, legal writs, and artistic illustrations, are brought together to discuss medieval swine rearing practices.

I address both the feeding of swine on autumn acorns, which is a well-attested practice, and the lesser discussed but still widely practiced grazing of swine in pastures. Because both feeding on grasses/rhizomatic plants and fattening on acorns were required at different times of the year, wood pastures were likely regular swine feeding grounds during medieval times.

Illustration of medieval swine herding practices in an English manuscript from the 14th century. British Library, Yates Thompson 13. Image in the public domain. Courtesy of British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Through a comparison with the Spanish dehesa wood pasture system (Parsons 1962, Joffre et al 1988, Clement 2008), I argue that these English wood pastures were likely dominated by oak trees pollarded on long cycles. In addition, selective planting and seedling cultivation during the Middle Ages would have favored pedunculate oak, which provided acorns that were easier to knock off of the tree for use as fodder. Therefore, I conclude that wood pasture restoration projects in the UK might want to encourage pollarded pedunculate oaks as the pasture dominant species.

Although English wood pasture restoration has focused on the use of cattle and ponies as grazers (see the Grazing Animals Project for examples), swine should be considered a viable wood pasture restoration component. Pigs have a different affect on vegetation than the large herbivores: pigs are omnivorous foragers that obtain much of their food by rooting as well as grazing on herbs, whereas cattle and ponies are bulk grazers.  For those interested in wood pasture restoration, pigs may help control weedy plants like bracken, loosen the soil bed, and maintain the open character of wood pastures.

Clement, V. 2008. Spanish wood pasture: origin and durability of an historical wooded landscape in Mediterranean Europe. Environmental History 14: 67–87.

Joffre, R., J. Vacher, C. de los Llanos, and G. Long. 1988. The dehesa: an agrosilvopastoral system of the Mediterranean region with special reference to the Sierra Morena area of Spain. Agroforestry Systems 6: 71–96.

Jørgensen, D. 2013. Pigs and pollards: medieval insights for UK wood pasture restoration. Sustainability 5: 387-399.

Parsons, J.J. 1962. The acorn-hog economy of the oak woodlands of southwestern Spain. Geographical Review 52: 211–235.

Dolly Jørgensen, PhD
Department of Ecology and Environmental Science
Umeå University, Sweden


Rob Marrs said...

Interesting suggestion of using pigs, partly for bracken control. They root around in the soil and both expose and eat the rhizomes. However, if they eat too much they can induce a thiamine deficiency and be pretty sick or even die!

Evans, W.C. (1976) Bracken thiaminase-mediated neurotoxic syndromes. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 73, 113-132.

MARRS, R.H. & the late WATT, A.S. 2006. Biological flora of Pteridium aquilinum. Journal of Ecology, 94, 1272-1321.

Hartel Tibor said...

In Transylvania (Central Romania) Saxons and others regularly had 'pig herd' in each willage. They go out every day in an oak wood-pasture which was specially 'designed' for them (i.e. with wetlands along the spring to allow them a 'bath'). Old people told me that sometimes they put a metal ring in the nose of the pigs to avoid the damage of the pasture.

Only very old people remember this (i.e. those over 70, they say they had up tp 10 years at those times), so pig grazing stopped for many decades in central Romania.

Dolly Jørgensen said...

Ringing was indeed quite common in late medieval and early modern England as well. A metal ring or sometimes bolt is placed through the snout to prevent excess rooting while still allowing for pasture feeding.

As for the bracken, while it is true that eating too much can be fatal for pigs, it appears from the historical record that a mixed diet with bracken in it is unproblematic for them.

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