North East Farming

Farming and Rural Industries 100AD – 1900AD

The history of the North-East’s heavy industry often overshadows the major rural industries like lead mining and, of course, agriculture, but in all but the last 300 years, farming has been the most important source of employment in the region.

The Tees valley near Middleton
The Tees valley near Middleton St George © David Simpson

First farmers

Farming had been undertaken in the region since Neolithic times and the ancient people often practised Transhumance – moving livestock from upland to valley according to season – was practised by ancient Britons and Norwegian Vikings. Circular sheep folds in Weardale dating from the thirteenth century show this practice continued in later periods.

Anglo-Saxon farmers preferred lowland farms and villages, which they called ‘tons’ and ‘hams’. The Danes called them ‘bys’. Girsby, near Darlington, means ‘pig farm village’ and demonstrates that some farms specialised. In medieval times monasteries dominated the agriculture, particularly in Yorkshire where Fountains Abbey owned 15,000 sheep.

The Cheviots viewed from Ford.
The Cheviots viewed from Ford © David Simpson

Farm towns and villages

In the medieval lowlands there were usually three large arable fields surrounding a village employing a crop rotation system. Each year one field was left fallow to allow soil recovery while the other two grew rye, wheat, oats or barley.

The fields were ploughed by teams of oxen and the area one ox could plough for sowing each season was known as a Bovate or Oxgang. Bonded men cultivated the land as servants to a local lord. Beyond the fields was pasture for cows and sheep or perhaps woodland providing fuel in the form of charcoal.

Upper Weardale scenery near Westgate.
Upper Weardale scenery near Westgate © David Simpson

Medieval forests

Vast areas of upland were designated forests, set aside for hunting. They belonged to the king. They included huge open fields and commons often inhabited by peasants and subjected to special forest laws. In County Durham, the Prince Bishops owned a hunting forest in Weardale between Eastgate and Westgate where they hunted every autumn.

Royal forests included the Forest of Galtres near York, the Forest of Pickering and extensive forests in Northumberland. In addition there were around 60 deer parks in North Yorkshire from which deer were released into forests before a hunt. Areas of forest reclaimed for farmland were known locally as Riddings.


Apart from Demesnes (special areas of land directly held by the Lord of the Manor), medieval farmland was not fenced in to denote ownership.

There were some enclosures – where land was fenced by its owners – after the Black Death in 1348, but it was in Tudor times that enclosures began as a result of local agreements. Lowland villages of Yorkshire and east Durham were affected as fields formerly divided into strips were permanently enclosed with neatly cut hedges.

From about 1750, Acts of Parliament increased enclosure in upland areas to meet the demand from growing towns and the increasing cost of grain. Dry stone walls became a feature of the dales as the uplands were enclosed.

The Durham Ox
The Durham Ox.

Farm Animal breeds

Breeds of farm animal developed in the region include the Shorthorn cattle, which were a significant development of the Durham Ox (or Ketton Ox) bred by Charles and Robert Colling near Darlington around 1796. Other famous livestock breeders from the Darlington area were Matthew and George Culley who moved to Northumberland in 1767 to farm at Fenton near Wooler. They developed a strain of sheep called Border Leicester by crossing the region’s Teeswater Sheep with Bakewell Dishleys.

Border Leicesters could be fattened quickly for the town market. Famous breeds of working dogs developed in the region include the Border Collies, which have herded sheep along both sides of the Scottish border for at least 300 years. Terriers bred for hunting in the region include the Border Terrier, Yorkshire Terrier and the Bedlington Terrier. North Yorkshire is noted for its horse breeding including the famous Cleveland Bays.


Fox hunting gained popularity among the gentry in the eighteenth century when increasing enclosure provided more hedges and fences to jump. From 1787, Lord Darlington’s Raby Hunt was at the forefront and covered vast areas of Durham and Yorkshire and reached a s far as Warden Law and Witton Gilbert. In the early nineteenth century, smaller hunts developed like the Zetland Hunt, Lambton Hunt and the Braes of Derwent.

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