Medieval meadows and wood pasture

Our research into the Rievaulx Abbey documents has thrown an interesting light on what farming looked like in Swaledale in the medieval period. Hay and the meadows it was  grown in were clearly important but so too was the right to graze animals in what we call ‘wood pastures’ on the hillsides and this included cutting branches off trees so animals could eat the leaves.

Ivelet Wood just across the river from Muker has been identified as an original piece of wood pasture which  was ‘common’ or shared land where, from the earliest times, commoners had the right to graze their stock and also have access to woodland to supply firewood and sometimes timber. As grazing pressure has reduced on this relatively remote steep valley side, the trees have become more dominant.

Footpath through Ivelet Wood

Part of the grant of land in Swaledale to Rievaulx was the right to lead cattle to and from the wood pastures so long as they avoided going through cornfields and meadows [segetibus et pratis]. Given that they were also given the right to catch wolves it’s possible that cattle were only grazed out during daylight hours and brought back into the safety of  shelters called lodges in the document [logias]. 

A party of national park staff went out on a working holiday to a village in Romania earlier this year and they found that the villagers look after their cows in exactly the same way – leading them out in a communal herd in the morning and then bringing them back and letting them make their own way to their individual cowhouses at night. They even cut branches off trees as fodder. There the danger is from bears as well as wolves!

Find out more about historic woodland in the Yorkshire Dales on our Out of Oblivion website.

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