Ley Farming

by Sir R. George Stapledon and William Davies

Chapter 1

In the Agricultural Statistics distinction is made between permanent grass on the one hand and clover and rotation grasses on the other. The distinction is far from absolute, for a very great deal of our permanent grass has been under the plough, while much of the older rotation grass differs in no essential respect from permanent grass. Clover and rotation grasses constitute temporary grass as is generally understood, that is to say, grass that will have been artificially made as the result of sowing seeds for the explicit purpose, and it is such as is intended to be ploughed up again after an appropriate lapse of years. We speak, then, of artificial or temporary grass, and it has become customary to describe fields that are in such grass as leys. Leys are, however, of many different kinds, and they are used for a great variety of different purposes.

The term 'ley' has created considerable interest especially among overseas workers, many of whom have asked us for explanation since it is omitted from many modern dictionaries. Ley, lea or lay, the Oxford Dictionary tells us inter alia implies arable land under grass; land laid down for pasture; grassland. The word ley is designated obsolete but we adhere to this word inherited from our early student days. In doing so, we follow modern precedent in the wake of such authorities as Somerville and Gilchrist and we find ourselves in the company of Orwin as well as other contemporary British writers. The standard dictionaries of the nineteenth century all include the term 'ley', for example, the Imperial Dictionary of Dr. John Ogilvie (published 1850 and based on Webster's Dictionary) says of 'ley': a different orthography of lay or lea, a meadow or field. The Welsh form is 'lle' from the root of lay. We mean by ley, an area of grassland sown as an integral part of the rotation (a series of ploughings and direct reseedings should be regarded as a simple rotation). In this sense we regard the ley as destined to be reploughed at some predetermined stage. The ley ceases to be a ley, therefore, when the sown species are replaced by unsown and indigenous plants. This stage broadly coincides with a material fall in the productive capacity of the grassland.

Although rotational grasses were introduced into this country in the seventeenth century, the concept of the ley as an integral part of a definite rotation only took shape slowly. The introduction of red clover, as well as of the turnip, has been attributed to Sir Richard Weston, who, in 1613, was experimenting extensively with both plants. In 1663, Andrew Yarranton had published a second edition of his book, The Great Improvement of Lands by Clover, the first known book dealing exclusively with this plant. It should be pointed out in passing that rape, an important plant in many modern ley rotations, was also being grown during the seventeenth century, particularly on pared and burned lands in the Fens, both for sheep feed and for oil from its seeds. All the earliest writers make it quite clear that it was realized from the beginning that clover-containing leys exercised an influence on subsequent soil fertility, and that sown leys comparatively soon deteriorated. Blyth, writing in 1649, expressed the opinion that land should not be too long maintained in grass, while he was fully aware of the evils following prolonged cropping.

Such leys as were employed during the seventeenth century and right up to the time when Townshend introduced the four-course rotation in 1730, were undoubtedly used in a haphazard manner and could not be said to have constituted the corner-stone in any definite and pre-defined rotation. It was indeed considerably after Townshend's day before either long or short leys, became the foundation of any well-recognized system of farming.

There is always a very real distinction to be made between a first discovery, or the first introduction of a process or of a commodity, and the embodiment of such a discovery, process or commodity in a practical system of economic production, which latter must necessarily be based on prolonged experience and experimentation. What has been true of red clover and the turnip has been equally true of wild white clover and basic slag. There is evidence for supposing that the value of wild white clover was appreciated early in the eighteenth century. For example, Lisle based on notes made prior to 1710, observes that 'Mr. Webb of Mountain-Farley (Hampshire) sowed the wild white clover and red broad clover, or honeysuckle and it (? wild white) holds the ground and decays not: he says it is practised in Sussex, and that he had his seed from thence.' This is probably the first reference to wild white clover named as such in the early literature and the reference to Sussex as a source of seed is of immediate interest. Even so, it was not until after the work of Gilchrist well into the present century that seed of wild white clover became a generally accepted instrument in the farming economy of this country.

Leys of various durations were probably employed from the outset, but in the main they would seem to have been quite short -- one or two years -- or relatively long; the former being based primarily on red clover and the latter on sainfoin, and in some instances on lucerne. Thus North writing in 1759 speaks of sainfoin leys remaining down fifteen to twenty years, and 'rey grass' (rye-grass being amongst the first rotational grasses to be introduced into the country) for six to eight years. That the influence of the ley on soil fertility was becoming a well-recognized principle was clearly indicated by the writers of the middle eighteenth century. This is seen in the title of North's pamphlet, 'An Account of the Different kinds of Grasses Propagated in England for the Improvement of Corn and Pasture Lands', while William Ellis, of Little Gaddeston, writing in 1744, attributed the excellence of the farming in Hertfordshire to 'good ploughing, mixing earths, dunging and dressing, resting the ground with sown grasses'.

The ley, and by no means only the one-year red-clover ley, so intimately connected with the four-course rotation, came into its own during roughly the hundred years 1730 (Townshend)-1830 (Coke died in 1842), for it was only then that the turnip and red clover combined to revolutionize systems of farming. From the very beginning the clover ley has had as much to contribute to the success of the four-course rotation itself as the turnip; indeed it may be argued that the clover has never had full justice done to it for its share in the evolution of high arable farming based on the short rotation, and still less for share its in the evolution of longer leys and systems of alternate husbandry.

Like the turnip the clover fed the muck heap, but unlike the turnip, the leguminous plant contributed directly to the fertility of the fields upon which it was grown. To help produce manure and (with or without manure) to enhance fertility with which to grow wheat or other cereals, that was the first essential duty of the ley -- a point to be particularly noted, for the enhancement of fertility should always be regarded as being a prime function of the ley. 'Muck' is perhaps no longer to be counted the only 'mother of money', but soil fertility must always be the foundation upon which permanent agricultural prosperity can alone be built. Such prosperity can be built upon the leguminous plant.

Cereal production in this country during the period more or less synchronizing with the Napoleonic Wars almost certainly owed more to the leguminous plant than has perhaps been fully realized. In those times, and perhaps especially in districts not particularly well suited to the four-course rotation, there is much evidence to show that land was periodically rested under grass (in leys in fact) to a not inconsiderable extent although in an indiscriminate manner, the leys being ill prepared and often left down for no predefined period. Most of these leys, as we have said, would have been based on red clover, and when left down for three years and upwards the wild and indigenous white clover would be bound to have gained unsown and volunteer entry to a greater or lesser extent, and to have exercised its influence on soil fertility to the advantage of a subsequent run of cereal crops. In the west of England, and in Wales, during those years there must have been a very large acreage under cultivation on the basis only of cereals and ill-prepared or tumbledown (unsown) leys without the intervention of the turnip in the 'rotation'.

A hint of this type of 'rotation' is given by Thomas Pennant (1796) writing of these practices in Flintshire. Of red clover he says 'it is not a favourite grass ... it wears out in less than three years, after which we renew the ground with a crop of wheat'. Interesting too is his remark on ryegrass; he says it 'is sowen in our poor land, which if not harvested early, is little better than a fodder of straw'. How true! and a lesson not yet learned in many districts to-day. We have evidence from the reports of Arthur Young (1797-1804), and from a variety of other sources, of two-year leys being employed in some parts of England, three-year leys in other parts; four, five and six-year leys are also spoken of and suggestions made for putting away to grass for eight to ten years 'to repose the land from turnips and corn'.

The movement towards the employment of better seeds mixtures and of a type more closely resembling those in present use and better suited to the requirements of the longer ley would seem, however, to have been a development of the experiences gained in connection with the making and improvement of permanent grass.

Already by 1760 much interest was being taken in the so-called 'natural grasses'. In 1762 Benjamin Stillingfleet had published a second edition of his book of miscellaneous tracts containing the 'Calendar of Flora' and with additional observations on the English grasses. To Stillingfleet must be given the credit of assigning English names to our commoner grasses, though in most cases he was content to translate from the Latin of Linnaeus. The task was rendered the easier for him since he had a perfectly free hand for 'it happens very luckily that our common people know scarce any of the grasses by names as far as I could ever find by conversing with farmers, husbandmen, etc.' To name is to create interest, and the awakening of a grass consciousness embracing something more than just grass -- 'ray-grass' and 'clavers' -- may be said to date from Stillingfleet, but the intervening 180 years have not been sufficient fully to awaken the majority of 'common people', while even the pioneer husbandmen of to-day could 'open their eyes' still wider with considerable advantage to themselves.

By 1790, Coke was paying attention to his grasslands and was renovating and sowing down to permanent grass with carefully collected seed, for 'he gave his simple botanical lessons to the children of his tenantry who scoured the country to procure his stocks of seed'. There can be little doubt, however, that at least a certain number of fields sown down in this way would in fact have been brought into cultivation after some few years and never left to become 'permanent'.

It was not until after the agricultural depression had made itself felt in 1874 that land was sown down to 'permanent grass' on a grand scale and that farmers began to gain experience in seeds mixtures, and had opportunities for noting the stages of development in long-duration swards. The first extensive seeding down was, however, almost solely with the avowed intention of making 'permanent pasture', thus between 1877 and 1888, 1,688,487 acres were put away to permanent pasture; a single landowner in that period having sown down no less than 2,000 acres.

It is significant that although much was written about seeds mixtures and putting land down to grass during the period from approximately 1880 till nearly the end of the century (Faunce de Laune was writing in 1882 and William Carruthers subsequently to 1883, and M. H. Sutton as early as 1861), the great bulk of these writings had to do with the making of permanent grass. The idea of using long-duration grass as an integral part of the rotation had, however, forced itself upon the minds of the makers of permanent pasture by 1888, for in that year Sir James A. Caird sent out a questionnaire to a number of prominent farmers, and one of the questions asked was this: 'Might it not be better to let the land remain three, four or more years in grass rather than lay it to permanent pasture?' James Howard (1880), and no doubt many others with him, had clearly realized that land sown to permanent grass would in fact be ploughed (and would therefore in effect function as a long-duration ley) 'if (as he says) corn growing should again become profitable', and he shrewdly adds 'the land would for many years be far more valuable because of the rest it had (in grass)'.

Caird received nineteen replies to his questionnaire, and eight of these, for a variety of different reasons, were in favour of the longer ley. Caird's evidence is interesting in many respects. Thomas and Gilbert had introduced their new basic process for the manufacture of steel in 1878, but the first experiments in this country were not conducted until 1885, and basic slag was not in general use by 1888. Only one correspondent had employed wild white clover in his mixture, but despite the lack of these essential aids to the formation of good leys (and of good permanent grass of course) yet there was a substantial body of opinion in favour of the ley. In the light of evidence to be discussed in subsequent chapters the remarks made by two correspondents are particularly noteworthy. Says the one, a heavy clay farmer, 'the seeds are worth more to graze for the first two-three years than they would be for the next ten'. Says the other, a dairy farmer, 'in a dairy country the farmers believe that young grasses produce milk in greater quantity'. (The italics are our own.)

The first real protagonist of the long ley based on an ad hoc and sensible seeds mixture, and one so blended as to ensure sustained productivity throughout the whole duration of the ley, and the first to propound a definite system of farming pivoted on the ley was Robert H. Elliot, of Clifton Park, who published his first edition of The Clifton Park System of Farming in 1898. By 1907 the book had run through four editions, and had exercised a profound influence on agricultural thought, but strangely enough in more recent time attention has chiefly been given to the seeds mixtures which he advocated, as such of secondary importance, and much less to his epoch-making underlying thesis -- the system as such. His thesis is so important and is destined to be so far-reaching that it must be stated in his own words, 'The system ... is extremely simple. It consists of creating with the agency of large rooting and deep rooting plants a good sod, and then relying on it for the manurial (except the turnip manure) and physical conditions necessary for growing two green crops and two cereal crops, after which the land is again laid down to grass and the creation of a good sod again commenced.' Very appropriately, the work of Elliot has recently been brought forcefully to the notice of farmers by Michael Graham in a timely little book. As that author reminds us, Elliot founded his system on solid foundations, asserting as he did that 'the success of our agriculture depends upon the cheapness of production; the cheapest food for stock is grass; the cheapest manure for soil is a turf composed largely of deeprooting plants; the cheapest, deepest and best tillers, drainers and warmers of soil are roots'.

Here, then, is the birth of a real philosophy of ley farming; Elliot depended on the four-year ley and, as far as possible, he took it over the whole of his farm. He succeeded, moreover, without the all-important aid of sowing wild white clover, which renders his achievements by that much the more remarkable.

In 1896 Somerville was installed at Cockle Park, and in 1897 he began his far-reaching experiments with basic slag. Somerville was primarily concerned with the improvement of permanent pastures, but he soon proved to the world the immense value of basic slag, and of wild white clover, as essential and closely related factors in all forms of successful grassland husbandry.

Gilchrist had started experimenting with wild white clover at Bangor in 1889, and from the beginning had interested himself in leys and in seeds mixtures for leys. Thus, when later he was himself in charge of Cockle Park, he turned both basic slag and wild white clover to proper account in the preparation of longer leys. Gilchrist's work and his contribution to the philosophy of ley farming has perhaps even yet not received the recognition it has deserved. His name, like that of Elliot's, has become associated with the seeds mixture (the Cockle Park seeds mixture but little modified is still in very general use) rather than with the more essential and more far-reaching system of which the seeds mixture was but a part. It was Gilchrist's valuable contribution to bring all the factors together, the basic slag, the wild white clover, a sensible seeds mixture, and thus to make it possible for the ley to play its yeoman's part in the long rotation. In 1920 Gilchrist reviewing his life's work in a paper read at the Farmers' Club was able to say 'our temporary leys at Cockle Park have within two years given turf far superior to the best of our old-land pastures and these leys form pastures of the highest class', and in conclusion he added, 'I strongly urge that the areas of old-land hay should be reduced and rotation hay correspondingly increased ... much of our pasture also in future should form part of long rotations on our farms.'

The long ley was fairly launched by 1910, and pioneer farmers had been exploring the possibilities of a definite system of ley farming. Amongst these pioneers the name of James Cruickshank, of Cruden Bay, stands pre-eminent. He first sowed wild white clover in 1910, and in his peculiarly instructive account of his methods and achievements he says 'the crowning point in the improvement of the pasture (he was sowing out leys) was the introduction of wild white clover, and it would be difficult to estimate the value of this improvement'. At a later date, writing of the changes in the agricultural industry in Aberdeenshire, where the whole system of farming is based on the ley, he gives it as his opinion that the changes for the better that have taken place since 1911 have been due to better seeds mixtures, and that all farmers are agreed that the most important single factor has been 'wild white'. These views are amply confirmed by Findlay, who has himself done so much for ley farming by his fundamental and long-continued researches on seeds mixtures.

This brief historical sketch will have served to explain what in the past has been, and what at the present time is, understood by the ley. A much more exact definition is, however, necessary, and leys need to be accurately classified, while a clearer understanding of the precise functions of the various types of ley in modern systems of farming is essential. The aim of this book is to carry forward the work of Elliot, Gilchrist and the earlier pioneers, and to show the vital part the ley has to play both in our war-time food production and in the development of ever-improving agricultural practices.

In order properly to develop our arguments and adequately to explain the purposes and uses of the ley, it will be necessary first briefly to describe the types of permanent grass and of rough grazings that are met with in this country. It will also be essential to endeavour to outline the principles which determine grassland succession, for it is only on a clear understanding of these principles that rational systems of grassland, and therefore of ley, management can be established.


ELLIOT, ROBERT H. (1943). The Clifton Park System of Farming. Faber & Faber. London.

YARRANTON, ANDREW (1663). The Great Improvement of Lands by Clover. London.

FUSSELL, G. E. (1935).'The First English Book on Clover and its Author.' Journ. Min. Agric. Vol. 41.

LISLE, EDWARD (1757). Observations on Husbandry. Published by G. Falkner, Dublin.

FUSSELL, G. E. (1931-2). 'Grassland Advice in the Middle Eighteenth Century.' Journ. Min. Agric. Vol. 38.

STEWART, J. G. and FUSSELL, G. E. (1929-30). 'The Alternate Husbandry: A Lesson from History.' Journ. Min. Agric. Vol. 36.

PROTHERO, ROWLAND E. (Lord Ernle) (1912). English Farming, Past and Present. London.

CAIRD, JAMES A. (1888). 'Recent Experiences in Laying Down Land to Grass.' Journ. Agric. Soc. Eng. Vol. 24.

HOWARD, JAMES (1880). 'Laying Down Land to Grass.' Journ. Roy. Agric. Soc. Eng. Vols. 16 and 18.

GRAHAM, MICHAEL (1941). Soil and Sense. Faber & Faber. London.

CRUICKSHANK, JAMES (1925). 'Ley Farming and Ensilage.' Trans. Highland and Agric. Soc. of Scotland. Fifth Series. Vol. 37.
-- 'Changes in the Agricultural Industry of Aberdeenshire in the Last Fifty Years.' (1936.) Scottish Journ. Agric. Vol. 19.

FINDLAY, W. M. (1937.) 'Temporary Grassland in the North of Scotland.' Report of the Fourth International Grassland Congress, Aberystwyth.

Next: 2. Types of British Grassland

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