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Following the last Ice Age, the Yorkshire Dales were left a barren, rocky landscape, devoid of trees and most animal species. Humans had long since moved to warmer parts of southern Europe. It was to take many years for the land to recover. The glaciers left behind deep deposits of clay in the valleys and these began to be colonised by the first tree species, juniper, hazel and birch. At this time, Britain was still joined to the continent by a land bridge and so herds of reindeer, red deer, wild cattle and horses moved back, followed soon after by the human hunters who lived off them. Victoria Cave has the first evidence for these hunters in the shape of a barbed harpoon point made from antler. Palaeolithic hunters probably only visited the Yorkshire Dales on a seasonal basis and the same is true of the people that came after them. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers may have travelled to the Dales from coastal camps. Lakes like Malham Tarn and Semerwater attracted large concentrations of deer and other prey species and the evidence of camp fires and flint working sites shows archaeologists that people returned year after year to the same places to hunt. Charcoal evidence in these archaeological excavations shows that these early migrants were modifying their environment by burning trees. Clearings attracted grazing animals and made them easier to kill using bows and arrows.
By the time of the Neolithic, flint technology had advanced enough that people could cut down trees and clear fields for a new, more settled lifestyle that involved cultivating land and domesticating animals like cattle and sheep. Hunting still went on in the upland areas of the Dales right through into the Bronze Age although by this time, large inroads had been made into the woodland cover of the area and long, co-axial field boundaries can be identified running up valley sides to the moorland tops. By the Iron Age, land division was well established and the new iron technology allowed even larger areas of land to be cleared, farmed and defended.
The tribal people of the Iron Age Yorkshire Dales, could not defend their land against the might of the invading Roman army. Their agricultural economies were diverted into supplying the state and army although there is little archaeological evidence for much change in the lifestyles of the native people. One romanised villa and its estate has been found on the fringe of the area at Gargrave. The Romans ruled for 400 years and then gave way to the chaos of the Dark Ages where native Britons became locked in power struggles over land with Anglo-Saxon invaders from the continent. By the 9th century, the Anglo-Saxons in their turn came under attack from Anglo-Scandinavian invaders although in the Dales, all the evidence points to peaceful colonisation rather than conflict. The Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Scandinavians became the English and continued the mixed farming of their British predecessors. By the time of the Norman Conquest, the feudal system of farming a lord’s land in return for use of a piece of land for yourself was well established. English peasants simply swapped English lords of the manor for Norman ones.
Soon after the Conquest, northern English lords rebelled against the loss of their lands and power. The Norman king, William, exacted a terrible revenge called the Harrying of the North. By the time the Domesday Book was written in 1086, many Yorkshire manors were still recorded as being ‘waste’. In some cases this may in fact have been a tax dodge, but the destruction and depopulation seems genuine and many places had to wait until the medieval era to be recolonised.
The Norman lords who ended up owning land in the Dales, built great castles to consolidate their power such as at Richmond and Middleham. Large areas of the Dales became their hunting forests or chases. Although the Norman lords did indeed hunt deer and other animals, the Forest was much more than a pleasure ground. It was exploited for its raw materials, and land within it was turned over more and more to farming, particularly large cattle farms known as vaccaries. Upland areas of little use to the lord were often handed over as gifts to the new religious houses gaining power in the country. Several of these ended up with vast estates in the Yorkshire Dale. Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory had land around Malham and here they built up profitable sheep farms supplying wool all over Europe.
When Henry VIII took his final decision to break with Rome and seize the assets of these great monastic houses, much of the land was sold off to the men who were already managing it or to the descendants of the Norman lords who originally owned it. The land was let back to local people often under a quite unusual system known as customary tenant right. This system bestowed considerable power on the tenants of the farms and many would trace the independent spirit of the Dales farmer back to the power they gained over landowners at this early stage.
From before Norman times most communities or townships as they were called, owned fields in common within the manor. In the Dales these included lowland meadows, pasture and arable land along with upland pastures for grazing sheep and cattle. Through the Medieval and Tudor period historians see a long process of breakdown of this system as greed overcomes the common good and communities find it harder and harder to control those people determined to take more than their fair share. The valley bottom meadows and closes were pretty nearly all enclosed by the 17th century, but the communal way of life survived in the Dales longer than most and there are to this day common grazing lands where individual farmers own or buy ‘stints’ allowing them to graze a certain number of sheep each year.
The final result of the breakdown of control of common land was a series of Enclosure Acts brought in by Parliament in the 18th and 19th centuries. People with a claim on common land were offered an appropriate proportion of that common land, so long as they could afford to fence or wall it. Those with smaller parcels of land needed extra family income in order to survive. Industrial expansion of lead mining and textile industries in the Dales provided these additional incomes. The growth of towns and early industrialisation brought great wealth to those farmers who had managed to consolidate their holdings and from the early 18th century we see timber farmhouses all over the area being rebuilt in stone. Cattle proved to be the foundation of much of this new wealth. Towns and their workers need milk, cheese and meat and by the time that the canal and then the railways arrived, the wealth of these larger farmers was assured.
Dairying remains big business in parts of the Dales and Wensleydale cheese is still made in Hawes in Upper Wensleydale. Since the Second World War, Dales farmers have however increasingly turned from cattle to sheep as they found that their upland pasture was not suitable for raising the new continental beef breeds preferred by butchers and supermarkets. European subsidies have allowed sheep farming to flourish, sometimes at the expense of the environment. Today, organisations such as English Nature and the National Park Authority are using European money to encourage farmers to return to using hardy beef cattle to graze their land. Such animals can survive the harsh winters of the Dales, are less damaging to the natural environment than sheep and their slow maturing produces meat that is highly sought after.
The Foot and Mouth crisis of 2001 showed that although farming is still a major economic force in the Dales, tourism runs it a very close second and increasingly farmers are diversifying their business to take advantage of this. Redundant barns are converted to offer accommodation for walkers and farmhouses become bed and breakfasts. Other farmers have started to supply direct to their customers and yet others are turning to organic farming as a way of increasing their profits.
In spite of all these efforts, the family farm seems threatened as more and more farmers’ sons and daughters choose not to follow their parents into what has always been a tough life with few financial rewards. The average age of the Dales farmer today  is between 50 and 60 years old. The 21st century may indeed be witness to the final generation of genuine Dales farmers.