WHAT’S THAT CROP?
The fields of Britain are in full bloom at the moment, with the harvest almost upon us. So we asked botanist Dr Sally Francis, who runs her own smallholding in Norfolk, to talk us through six of the most common crops you might be walking past this month…
Our biggest crop, with 14.5 million tonnes grown in the UK in 2016. It’s sown between February and April; a lot of people think it’s just grass at the leaf stage, with its chunky blue-green leaves. Distinctive wheat ears appear later in the year from July to August. It’s believed wheat was first cultivated in the Middle East around 9500BC, and it had reached Britain by 3000BC.
Vegetable crops like potato, carrot and beetroot can be identified by the way the field is set out, with tramlines in between vegetable beds to allow the tractor wheels to pass without damaging the crop. Genetic testing has shown that the potato was first cultivated in southern Peru between 7000 and 10,000 years ago, but Europe now has the highest per capita production of potatoes across the world.
As an ingredient for beers and whisky, this is a vital crop for walkers. Although mostly grown over winter, you can see spring barley now and it’s harvested in the last three weeks of August. At the ear stage it has long hairs known as awns. The old English word for barley was bære, and that word survives in the north of Scotland as bere: a specific strain of six-row barley grown there.
You’re most likely to see this crop in the south of Britain where it is grown for animal feed, although it does grow as far north as Yorkshire. It is also used to supply anaerobic digestion plants that create electricity and gas. It has distinctive wide leaves and very recognisable ears which start to appear in late April and May. This crop was first domesticated in Mexico around 10,000 years ago, and global production today is larger than that of wheat or rice.
OIL SEED RAPE
In a 1940s book on British crops this warranted just a half-page mention, but now this bright yellow-flowered brassica is marching across the countryside. Its increase is driven in part from our move away from animal fats, although it is also used as animal feed and for biodiesel. Its name derives from the Latin for turnip, rapum, and it was first recorded in Britain at the end of the 14th century.
These are grown under contract to British Sugar within a certain radius of one of their four processing plants, mostly in the east of England. Sugar beets were not grown on a large scale in the UK until the mid-1920s. Before the First World War, with its far-flung empire, Britain simply imported its sugar from the cheapest market. But the war created a shortage in sugar, prompting the development of a domestic market.