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Agricultural Engineers Association

UK - Agricultural Engineers Association
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Major changes in UK agriculture over Queen's reign

The death of Queen Elizabeth II provided a good opportunity to reflect on how things changed during her reign. As such, I thought it might be interesting to look at how farming in the UK has changed since 1952. As luck would have it, the dusty shelves in my office housed a report on Agricultural Statistics for 1952-53, covering England and Wales. Together with some long time series published by the government, this gives us the chance to look at how farming has changed over the last 70 years.

In 1952, there were 380,031 agricultural holdings in England and Wales, of which 137,312 had an area of over 50 acres (roughly 20 hectares). By 2021, those numbers had reduced to 142,287 and 78,939, respectively. The number of large holdings had increased, though. In 2021, there were 30,068 holdings with over 100 hectares; in 1952, there were probably no more than 25,000 of a similar size (the bands used back then were different).

There have also been big changes in the crops grown. In 1952, the areas of wheat, barley and oats grown in the UK were similar. The oat area rapidly shrank in the following years, probably mainly because the number of working horses kept on farm and elsewhere declined. Initially, that area was replaced mainly by barley but during the 1980s, the area of wheat grew and it took over as the leading crop, in terms of area, in 1986 and has remained there since. Overall, the total area of the three main cereals grown in 2021 was 8% bigger than in 1952.

The area of oilseeds has also expanded, with only 140,000 acres (57,000 hectares) of rape and 17,000 acres (6,800 hectares) of linseed grown in 1952, compared with 273,000ha and 40,000ha, respectively, in 2021. In contrast, the area of potatoes grown has shrunk from 681,600 acres (275,000 hectares) in 1952 to just 105,000 hectares. The area of other field vegetables has declined from about 165,000ha in England and Wales alone to 112,000ha across the whole UK. Seventy years ago, there was also a much larger area of fodder crops grown than is the case currently. 

Even more dramatic is the loss of orchards. In 1952, they accounted for 278,000 acres (112,000 hectares) in England and Wales. By 2021, that had plummeted to just 23,000 hectares across the whole of the UK. The area of grassland has also reduced somewhat, although not nearly as quickly.

In 1952, livestock numbers on UK farms were on an upward trend as the country aimed to become more self-sufficient after the end of World War II. Cattle and pig numbers went on to peak in the 1970s and have since declined, so current numbers are not very different to those reported at the start of the Queen's reign. Sheep numbers have also come down from their peak in the 1990s but there are still around 50% more sheep in the UK than there were in 1952. Meanwhile, poultry numbers continue to rise and there are now more than twice as many birds as 70 years ago.

One exception to the upward trend in livestock numbers was horses. In 1952, there were still 210,125 'horses used for agricultural purposes' recorded. Only a year later, that number had already declined by 30,000. Of course, no equivalent figure is published these days but the total number of horses kept on farms hasn't actually changed that much. 

The continued use of horses on farm in 1952 is also apparent in figures in the report for the number of machines and implements in use on farms in England and Wales. The number of tractors reported was just under 325,000, not that different to the 'tractor parc' today. Those tractors were pulling 277,115 mouldboard ploughs but there were also 120,121 horse-drawn ploughs still in use. There were also plenty of other horse-pulled implements listed.

Finally, the 1952 report found that there were just over 700,000 workers employed on agricultural holdings in England and Wales. By 2021, that number had halved and use of casual workers had fallen even more rapidly, from about 168,000 to 44,000. 

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