England’s ‘last open field village’, Laxton in Nottinghamshire, is a landscape shaped by the historic communal farming system and its ongoing modernisation in the 21st century. For FeedSax, and especially the archaeobotanical dimension of the project, Laxton offers the opportunity to study the species composition and ecology of vegetation communities adapted to the existing version of the open field system (three-field rotation of winter wheat, a second cereal and fallow) plus the ancient hay meadows — locally called ’sykes’ — that fill the uncultivated interstices of the arable landscape. The latter have been cut annually and periodically grazed by sheep for centuries, and remain untouched by agrochemicals. The sykes include designated SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest).
In June, 2018 we arranged a botanical survey trip to Laxton with the generous help of Mr Stuart Rose, an open field farmer descended from the Roose family mentioned in the ledger of the famous 17th century Laxton map in the Bodleian library, and Mrs Joy Allison and her husband Dik, who are members of the dynamic local historical society. The FeedSax team (Amy Bogaard, Elizabeth Stroud and Mark McKerracher) was joined by Mr John Hodgson, an eminent field botanist and plant ecologist who has pioneered a functional ecological approach to vegetation in Britain and beyond.
Three very full days were spent on quadrat survey in grassland ‘sykes’, cereal field edges (left unsprayed by herbicides) and (unsprayed) fallow fields. Buoyed along by glorious weather, orchid spotting and skylarks overhead, we recorded a long list of arable and meadow species, including rare weeds like the corn buttercup (Ranunculus arvensis).
We also observed the persistence of arable weeds mentioned as troublesome back into the early 20th century such as couch grass (Elytrigia repens), a perennial that can regenerate from root (rhizome) fragments and so is spread by ploughing. Archaeobotanists have hypothesised that this kind of perennial weed was associated with deep mouldboard ploughing, a key component of the medieval open field system.
We are now analysing the Laxton data to assess, for example, the impact of contrasting levels of (mechanical) soil disturbance on species composition and plant functional traits between the sykes and adjacent arable fields. Though the existing Laxton open field system is very much a 21st century farming landscape, the sykes provide a link with previous centuries of agricultural practice, extending back at least to the 17th century, when the Laxton map records many of these hay meadow areas in exactly the same configuration as today. Understanding the similarities and also the differences between present-day Laxton and our early medieval study sites will help us to unlock the origins and evolution of open fields.