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Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
Report on Spade and Fork Trenching


By Mr Robert Oliphant Pringle, Land Steward, Castle Ward, Strangford, Ireland.
[Premium, Medium Gold Medal.]

Deepening land by means of the spade and subsoil fork, combined with thorough draining, having been carried on to a considerable extent under my superintendence, I beg leave to submit the following account of the manner in which the work was performed, and the expenses incurred by this mode of cultivation.

The first thing done was to mark out the position of the drains, by means of a furrow made by the plough; and thus the land was laid off in ridges, the breadth of which, or the distance between the proposed drains, varying from 16½ to 18 feet. On each of these ridges were two workmen placed, who were provided with a common digging spade, shovel, and subsoiling fork. A few picks and crowbars were also placed at the disposal of the men, to assist in breaking up any very hard ground, or in the removal of large stones. All these implements, with the exception of the subsoil fork, are well known; the latter I shall describe.

The iron used in the construction of this tool must be of the best description. The prongs are 12 or 13 inches long, and steeled half their length. They are rather more than an inch thick at the upper part, by half an inch in width, and are made with a slight curve. The shoulders are flattened so as to serve as a tread, and the prongs are about 7 inches apart. Some forks have 3 prongs, but I have found that 2-pronged forks are the best; and, in this case, the tread is extended an inch or so over the prongs, to give sufficient room for the foot. The handle, made of well-seasoned ash, is 3 feet long, and set in a strong socket. The fork costs about 6s.

After the drains were laid off, the different main and sub-main drains were opened, the depth of which varied from 3½ to 4½ feet. The conduits or pipes of these drains were then built of substantial dry masonry; the size of the pipe being in general 8 inches high by 6 inches wide, and, in some cases, fully 14 inches square within; the quantity of water expected to flow in the drain regulating the size of the conduit. The bottom both of main and sub-main drains was paved, except in a few very hard places: 2 or 3 inches deep of small stones were thrown on the top of the pipe, and the whole was then covered with thin turf. When the men employed in subsoiling began operations, each party filled the earth into that portion of the main and sub-main drains on the ridge they were employed upon.

As I have said, the men were arranged in parties of 2 on each ridge, one of whom opened a trench about 2 feet wide, and as deep as the spade penetrated easily. This was turned over to one side, or upon the top of the earth previously filled into the main drain. The other man shovelled up the loose earth from the bottom of the trench, throwing it over that which had been previously dug out; and this being done, he broke up the subsoil by means of the fork, so that, between the portion dug out and what was broken up by the subsoiling fork, the soil was stirred from 16 to 20 inches from the surface in its solid state. In using the fork, care must be taken that it be put straight down, so that the subsoil may be stirred to as great a depth as possible, for when inserted and pushed down in an oblique manner, the depth to which the soil is stirred is some inches less than when the fork is put straight down.

The first trench having been opened and the subsoil stirred, the person whose duty it was to open the trench, commenced a new one by cutting a few neatly cut square sods, which were laid on the previously subsoiled part, along, and 6 or 7 inches in, from the centre of the open furrow of each ridge. This was done that a space of about 14 inches in width might be left open between each ridge, so as to form part of the parallel drains; and the loose earth in those spaces was carefully shovelled out as deep as the fork had penetrated. The small drains were sunk, in this manner, from 16 to 20 inches in the solid land, or from 22 to 26 inches deep in the loose soil. The facing of sods prevented the loose earth from slipping into the drains and filling them up before the full depth was cut out, or the stones filled in. After the first sods were laid another trench was dug, similar to that formerly made, and in like manner the other labourer shovelled out the loose earth, and sub-soiled the bottom of the trench. It will be observed that very little of the subsoil was thrown to the top of the trench; it was merely broken up and allowed to remain in its original position. Each party raised between them any stones which were too large to be easily brought up by the fork, and they likewise cleared out half of the drain on each side of their ridge, to the depth we have already stated. The only subsoil, therefore, which was thrown out was that taken out in clearing these drains, and this small portion was spread regularly over the ridge. As the men proceeded with the work, they cut a sufficient quantity of turf to be afterwards used in covering the stones in the drains, and laid them in small heaps on the trenched ground along the side of the drains. It was found advisable to have one ridge somewhat in advance of the next, and by so doing the men were not incommoded with stones; all large ones being thrown out on the untrenched ground of the succeeding ridge, and were then carried away without hindrance to any of the parties. This was done in consequence of its having been found, on a former occasion, to be desirable to avoid carting for some time on the trenched' ground, and also from its being often otherwise impracticable to get the stones carted to such parts of the main drains as remained to be filled. Latterly, however, as the stones increased, and not being immediately required, they were thrown out on the trenched land, and allowed to remain for some time before being carted off. A boy was stationed either on each ridge, or every other ridge, to gather the small stones turned up in the course of trenching and subsoiling. These were piled up in small heaps on the centre of each ridge, and afterwards chiefly used in filling the parallel drains.

When a sufficient number of ridges were trenched and subsoiled in this manner, the drainers were set to work, cutting out the remaining part of each drain, to a depth of at least 3 feet in the loose ground, or 30 inches in the solid; and as soon as each drain was opened, the small stones, gathered in the manner described, were filled in 10 to 12 inches deep, turfed over, and the subsoil, taken out in finishing the opening of the drains, being returned, was firmly tramped down above the turfs. The sides of the drains, formed of the sods laid down by the trenchers, were then thrown into the drain and cut with the spade, and the ground left perfectly level.

It should be observed that the land, to which this report refers, was in grass before being broken up, and I consider when draining forms a part of the improvement of the soil, accompanied by deep working with the spade and fork, breaking it out of lea is decidedly the best plan. A field adjoining that to which I have especially referred, was trenched, subsoiled, and drained after a grain crop, but it was found impossible to fill the drains with small stones thrown in promiscuously, owing to the loose state of the sides of the drains; and, therefore, the stones were of necessity put in by the hand, and formed into a small conduit in the bottom of the drain. In such a case, tiles would have answered well, but the stones were in great abundance on the spot, and, therefore, much cheaper than tiles. There is no doubt but that digging the land is much easier when in a comparatively loose state after a grain crop, than in tough lea; but I think that this advantage is fully counterbalanced by the security of the work, and the ease with which the after operations of cutting out and filling the drains are conducted, when the land is broken out of grass. There may be found occasionally some fields where very few stones are turned up in the course of trenching, and where tiles can be had in the neighbourhood at a reasonable rate; but in general, and especially when there is plenty of small stones, I prefer breaking out of lea to the trenching, subsoiling, and draining of stubble land.

When land has been previously thorough-drained, the operations of trenching and subsoiling are conducted in precisely the same manner as already described, except that there is not any open space left between the ridges; or it may be done in the following manner: A trench of about 2 feet broad, and 8 or 9 inches deep, is opened up and down the entire length of one side of the field. The earth taken out of this trench must be carried to the opposite side and laid down in a line along the length of the field, in order to fill up the last trench. As this trench is being opened, another person follows and breaks up the bottom, by means of a subsoiling fork. The first pair of labourers will be followed by a second pair, one of whom opens another trench, throwing the earth on the top of the previously subsoiled part, and he in his turn is followed by another, who stirs up the subsoil; and in this manner other sets of men may follow, until the field is completed.

Delving and subsoiling, by the joint operations of spade and fork, are particularly applicable to the case of small farms, or to land which is very full of large stones. When the subsoil plough is used, we must have, at least, three pairs of strong horses. Those who hold farms of from 50 to 100 acres are prevented from using the subsoil plough, unless they can be assisted by a neighbour; and, indeed, the teams on these small farms are not strong enough for such heavy work. But there is another class of small farmers to which this system is even still more applicable—I mean the cottar-farmers of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and of Ireland. Recent events have induced those who are interested in the welfare of this class of people, to direct their attention to the adoption of better modes of farming among the cottar tenants than they have been in the habit of following. One main feature, of course, in such improved cultivation, must be the deep working of the soil, preceded or accompanied by thorough-draining; and as among this class exists a superabundance of capital in the shape of unemployed labour, the introduction of spade and fork husbandry would be a great means of ameliorating their condition by increasing the fertility of their holdings, through the profitable exercise of what was previously unproductive—to wit, their unemployed labour.

Any able-bodied man and his son could go over an acre during the winter months, a period which is usually spent in entire idleness ; and if those in charge of estates would take care that the after-management of the land so operated upon was judicious, then the increased produce would leave a greater profit than the people would have made had they even been employed labouring for others during the time they were engaged in working for themselves, besides being a permanent improvement of their holdings. By thus persevering every winter, and going on bit by bit, the whole extent of their farms would soon be gone over, and in a fit state for enabling them to manage their land in other respects differently from what they had been accustomed to do, and raise a greater amount of produce.

In land where there is a considerable quantity of large land-fast stones the tear and wear of horses, ploughs, and gearing, during the operations of subsoil ploughing or trenching, is very great; and although men follow after the plough in order to remove such stones, still they never are, in such cases, so efficiently removed as when the ground is broken up by the spade and subsoil fork. If the work is properly attended to, both by the labourers and those superintending it, it will be almost impossible to miss any large stones, or to leave any part of the indurated subsoil unbroken. The only method by which the uniform sufficiency of the work can be insured is by careful and urn-emitting attention on the part of the overseer. The work must be inspected, not only as it proceeds, but also occasionally after it is executed, by probing the depth with a stick shod with iron. In doing this, six inches at least more than the prescribed depth must be taken in order to allow for the subsidence of the land. For example, if the depth to which the land is subsoiled out of the solid be eighteen inches, that of the newly trenched and subsoiled land ought to be two feet.

The expense incurred by this system of improving land is dependent on many circumstances, and I might very easily give a series of calculations on this point, which, however, would not be of any real practical utility. I prefer rather to state what was the actual outlay on the land so operated upon under my superintendence. In order that this statement may be of any use as a criterion to judge by, it is necessary that I explain fully the nature of the soil we had to work upon.

The subsoil of nearly one-half of the land consisted of an extremely tenacious red clay, full of stones, and very difficult to work, both by the subsoilers and drainers. In the rest of the land we found a thick ferruginous stratum lying from six to twelve inches below the surface, all of which was dug up and thoroughly broken, it being necessary to use both pick and crowbar in effecting this, as well as the subsoiling forks. Altogether, this tract of land, from the tenacity of the subsoil, the presence of so large a body of almost impenetrable pan, and the abundance of the stones, was a very unfavourable one for getting the subsoiling done at a cheap rate.

Trenching and subsoiling, including removal of the stones, cost from £6, 17s. 6d. to £8, 9s. per statute acre; draining from £3, 5s. to £4 per acre. The wages paid to the labourers were 7s. a week, but the work was not done any cheaper in consequence of this comparatively low rate, because I know that, with well fed and experienced Scotch or English workmen on a higher rate of wages, the work would not have cost any more than it did. Large as the outlay has been, I am happy to say that the results fully justify me in recommending this mode of improving land to the attention of agriculturists.


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