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From warrens to the Bury St Edmunds Cattle Market – we take a look at the history of farming in Suffolk



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We have delved into the archives for our latest nostalgia feature, when our publication 'Millennium Memories' – printed in 1999 – looked at the history and evolution of farming in the region.

Farming in Suffolk can be traced back to 4600BC and to the early Neolithic farmers who kept pigs, sheep, goats and cattle around the Brecklands.

Central Suffolk, with its heavy soils, was mostly covered with thick woodlands but the heathlands were ideal for the early farmers to cultivate cereal crops.

A beet worker by the diffusers into which chopped sugar beet was put. Twenty of them would be placed in the diffuser, which was then filled with hot water which helped to extract the sugar from the beet
A beet worker by the diffusers into which chopped sugar beet was put. Twenty of them would be placed in the diffuser, which was then filled with hot water which helped to extract the sugar from the beet

They cleared trees with axes made from flints which probably came from Grimes Graves, near Thetford.

By the Iron Age, around 500BC, agriculture had become firmly established in East Anglia, with farmers herding sheep and oxen and cultivating an early type of wheat.

The heathlands served as ideal grazing for the sheep as well as an animal with a long association with the Brecklands – rabbits.

A Thetford warrener shares his lunch with his dog at the turn of the 20th century
A Thetford warrener shares his lunch with his dog at the turn of the 20th century

There were rabbit warrens at Lakenheath, Eriswell, Mildenhall, Methwold, Knettishall and many other places. Lodges, built to protect the warrens, can still be seen.

Around 4,000 rabbits were harvested each year from Brandon Warren in the 14th century, while as recently as 1906 2,000 rabbits were taken in a single night at Thetford Warren.

Sheep and rabbits were kept together on the warrens until World War Two, when the emphasis turned to growing crops for the home market and rearing pigs and chickens in intensive, space-efficient systems.

With men serving abroad during World War Two and a blockage on the Merchant Navy at sea, women turned their hand to 'digging for victory' on the land to produce food for the home market.

The numbers of sheep fell by about two thirds, with the knock-on effect being land was used for more specific purposes such as exclusively arable or grazing rather than ecologically linked together.

Some heathland was turned into golf courses and other patches are now used by the Ministry of Defence.

Horses have a long association with farming in Suffolk and one of the best known, the Suffolk Punch, is named after the county.

When horses were too old to work they were slaughtered and used for glue and fertiliser.

William Sykes and his family ran a horse-slaughterers' firm from Wyverstone in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Children in the 18th and 19th centuries helped to sow seeds in the fields by dropping them into holes made by the farmer.

This was called dibbling and was replaced by drilling in the 1850s.

Shooting as a sport and game-rearing came into its own in the 19th century, when many of the big estates around Suffok hosted shooting parties.

Birds were hand-reared and beaters were employed to put up the birds in front of the guns.

Setters and pointer dogs were used by gamekeepers in the 18th and early 19th centuries to indicate where birds were hiding, replaced at the end of the 19th century by dogs trained to retrieve the birds once they had been shot.

But shooting as a pastime had a disastrous effect on the number of quail in Suffolk. A record of a shoot in Feltwell shows 72 quail were shot whereas none remained when Millenium Memories was published in 1999.

The farming scene changed considerably towards the end of the 20th century.

The closure of Bury St Edmunds Cattle Market, at Christmas 1998
The closure of Bury St Edmunds Cattle Market, at Christmas 1998

Market closure – an end of an era

The closure at Christmas 1998 of Bury's Cattle Market marked the end of an ear.

Riding costs, the strong pound and a move to farmers selling directly to abattoirs rather than through a market meant auctioneers Lacy Scott and Knight could no longer justify keeping the market going.

The arc shopping centre and car parks now stand on the former Cattle Market site.

The festival poultry sale in Bury St Edmunds was a much-awaited annual sale each December
The festival poultry sale in Bury St Edmunds was a much-awaited annual sale each December

Livestock markets closed due to producers selling directly to supermarkets or going out of business due to higher production costs.

The BSE crisis brought with it a ban on exported beef and, subsequently, a bad name on the continent for British produce.

Increased welfare in pig production forced farmers' costs up and many went out of business.

At the end of the 20th century, farmers felt they faced a bleak future.