Wet and windy today but last week The JCB Golf and Country Club looked absolutely wonderful in the Autumn colours, very proud to have been a small part in this project
I have been posting a series of tweets entitled #Drainagehistory #LandDrainageFacts, Just a bit of fun really, I thought I would post them all on here as well. This is part one, part two will follow in a couple of weeks
The materials used for backfilling early drains were those most easily obtained, so a variety of drain types evolved, utilising stones, bricks, straw ropes or hedge trimmings for example.
Jospeh Elkington from Warwickshire was an early drainage pioneer who used an understanding of soil types and the water table to drain land. So grateful was parliament that it awarded him a grant of £1,000.00 in 1795.
About £12M (£1.3 billion today) was loaned from 1850 to 78 by government & private companies, to install drainage, also many landowners drained land with their own money.
In 1845 Thomas Scragg, invented a machine for producing drainage tiles, which brought their price down by some 70%, allowing drainage to be carried out on a large scale for the first time.
Often it is not possible to date old pipes accurately, but those stamped with ‘DRAIN’ were almost certainly made between 1826 & 1850 as field drains made in this period were exempt from a tax on clayware if so marked.
Drainage is mentioned in the novel Middlemarch by George Elliot, 1871 “see that your tenants don’t sell their straw and give them draining tiles you know but your fancy farming will not do” (abridged)
Ridge & furrow was one of the oldest practices to ensure that at least some of the land was moderately well drained, especially in clay areas, where it exploited the natural properties of the clay to dispose of surface water by run-off
Despite all the benefits of modern(ish) equipment & materials, the 250,000ac drained each year in the 1970’s & 1980’s was still well below the annual peak of the C19th drainage mania, all of which was installed by hand
Soil strength is direct linked to the water table. As many who have ended up axle deep will understand…
Traditionally in land drainage, distances where measured in rods and chains. 1 rod equals 5.5yds/5m and a chain 22yds/20m
Cato the elder (BC 234-149) Roman senator praised drainage schemes “if the land is wet it should be drained … in stiff soils open ditched should be used and in loose soils the drains should be covered”
Drainage has a long history, the oldest known systems date back some 9000 years in Mesopotamia, Drain pipes were in use 4000 years ago in the lower Indus Valley and bamboo pipes were used in ancient China
Being a contractor can be a frustrating game sometimes. Complaining about it doesn’t help anyone but it’s impossible not to have a rye smile at the course of events. Often it is the flow of work which causes the problems. In a perfect world, we would have a gentle, constant stream of juicy contracts neatly lined up in geographic order so the moves are as short as possible, of course this never happens, in fact it is so unrealistic that even in my dreams the work flow is sporadic. Normally some things fit together nicely and other things cause us travel fifty miles in one direction only to trace our steps back to a job next door to when we have just been.
At the moment we are hitting a silly period, I can almost feel the pressure building up just around the corner. The very wet weather in spring stopped us from getting an early start meaning we had a back log from the beginning. Since then we have been ticking along nicely, catching up slowly but surely. This is going to change, it seems like every contract is scheduled for the next couple of months; we are going to be very busy bees. The pressure to move on to the next job will be high, and we will be working for as long as the day light will last.
Of course this is good news, the days fly by when you’re busy and I’m sure an awful lot of people reading this will be in a similar position. I need to make it clear that I’m not complaining, lots of work is a good thing, I’m just trying to brace myself for the deluge. It’s all part of working in a seasonal business.
A version of this article was published in the Midland Farmer March 2018 Edition, I thought it might be worth putting on here too
The days are still short but lengthening, the temperature increasing and now is the time of thinking about water. There is a lot of it around at this time of year and unfortunately that’s unlikely to change for a while yet. You may not like it but at least you can stay dry in a cab or find a suddenly urgent indoor job which needs your attention, the crops in the field have to stand and suffer whatever falls from the sky, and suffer they often do. The effect of water logging can be extremely significant, and I doubt if any farmer reading this has not endured a total loss because of excess water, but there are things which can be done to at the very least, minimise the cost.
Walk over any field in England and it is very likely that you have just walked over a land drain. The wet weather and mild climate that can combine to make working on the land difficult, have been with us for a very long time. For as long as we have been farming we have tried to do something about it. English fields are covered by a network of drains, slowly moving water, under the power of gravity away from where it is doing harm. Working whenever it rains, twenty four hours day throughout the winter months, this hidden infrastructure is a normally underappreciated tool on the farm.
Most people greatly underestimate the number of drains which have been installed. When in 1865 Thomas Scragg invented a method of mass producing clay tiles he began a boom in drainage, the effects of which are still with us. Of course drainage was nothing new even back then, the practice had been going on for millennia, but the cost of pipe had held back those desperate to increase production. The late nineteenth century saw a massive surge in drainage and many of the drains installed then are still working today. This has continued through the years and drainage was considered worthy of government grant aid after the war and over two million hectares were drained under that subsidies scheme. There are millions of miles of drainage pipe safely buried slowly moving water maintaining and increase yield without human help or even, in many cases, knowledge.
However there will be no yield increase if the drainage schemes are not maintained, for the most part land drains normally a metre below the ground are safely protected and need little attention but they should not be completely ignored and now when it is still wet, is the perfect time of year to inspect them and carry out any required work. Great attention should be given to maintenance and care of old schemes, sometimes new installations can be avoided by simple actions which do not take long – although I should confess they might well involve getting wet.
The first task is to walk your ditches, see if the water is moving, pay particular attention to any culverts under tracks or roads make sure they are not blocked and water is moving freely. A relatively small bottleneck can cause water to back up, cover outlets and block drains. Try to note the position of outlets and see if they are running, at this time of year and after rain they should be. Let’s be honest, drainage is relatively simple: it’s about moving excess water and if the outlet or the ditch is not functioning properly then no part of a drainage scheme will work. Therefore ditch maintenance is vital; if outlets are covered by sediment, water cannot escape and the whole scheme backs up. Often ditches have been abandoned and layer upon layer of silt and other debris has built up, if this is the case a piped drainage scheme is lost but it can sometimes be revived by cleaning out the silt. Ditching needs to be done to maintain the flow of water but also to protect the habitat it provides to wildlife. Nearly all our field ditches are manmade and without regular attention they will fill up and an excellent habitat will be lost. However it is also important to be as sympathetic as possible to the life in the ditch – believe me there are an awful lot of creepy crawlies in our ditches, from large diving beetles to dragon and mayfly larva, they are teaming with life even in winter. If at all possible do small sections at a time, a bit on this ditch then a bit on the next and complete the job in a rotations over a couple of years. Perhaps it is possible to do one side of the ditch this year, the other side the following year. Try to give the bugs somewhere to go or at least somewhere which can then repopulate the ditch once the work is complete. It is surprising how quickly life will bounce back if you give it a chance.
In terms of actually doing the job, get the right machine, ideally a 360 degree excavator large enough not just to handle the work but to put you at a height where you can see what you’re doing. Clear away the vegetation, make sure you can see the ditch well enough to produce a smooth bottom and sides. Remember that you are returning the ditch to its original dimensions not excavating a new ditch, you should be removing silt not clay, stones or widening the channel. Somebody else has done this job before you let them guide you and make your life easy. Also follow and trust the water if it is moving you’re doing a good job, don’t go deeper than you have to. Gentle batters are generally best for both the wildlife and extending the life of the completed maintenance.
Avoid doing the job when birds and fish are reproducing so that means it best done in the winter and check if you need permission before starting work. If you are in an Internal Drainage Board it is best to consult them and discuss your plans, it is also prudent to check that the water course you are working on is not a main river, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Environment agency. Some main rivers are so designated for flooding protection and are not necessarily that wide or large, the Environment Agency web site is the best place to check, and whilst there you can also see if you require a D1 waste exemption for handling the silt.
If an outlet is not running, further examination is required, push some rods up the drain and see if there is a blockage. Tree roots can block drainage remarkable quickly and effectively. Remove the roots and often the scheme begins to work again, it’s a wet but incredible satisfying job. If you farm on sandy soils you might find the drains are full of silt, if that is the case then jetting the drains can remove the blockage and revitalise the scheme.
Dig out the old completion plans and see if you can find the outlet, if it appears to be missing, use a scale rule to work out where it should be and dig. The old plans tend to be accurate and more often than not an old pipe can be found, if it can be unblocked or a segment replaced, then the old scheme can be revitalised. Just make sure that it is a completion plan not a proposal, completion plans are usually signed and often have annotation. These existing drains are already yours, paid for in full, getting them to work even partially is fantastic value for money.
It is also important to note where wet areas are accurately either by stakes or on a plan. Often after harvest the land can look completely different and it can be difficult to know where the wet area was. This can result in a larger area than necessary being re-drained or perhaps if compaction is a problem sub-soiled, doing more than necessary is just a waste of money and now is the time to measure.
I should note a word of caution here too. On many occasion old schemes can be revitalised, however nothing lasts forever and many drains will have clocked up over a hundred years of service. Sometimes an old scheme is simply too far gone to be saved and new installation needs to be considered. Drainage is an investment for the long term, and one which has a proven track record. Almost all farmers or growers need the soil, yet often it is taken for granted. Soil needs to be cared for and invested in like any other resource and a major part of this is balancing the water contained in the soil. Most people reading this article will have old schemes working below optimum because of maintenance issues and wet spots in need of new drains, address those and you will increase yields. It will be an easy decision – if one which is likely to result in you being covered in mud!
View the Farm Services website to read more about Rob Burtonshaw and agricultural land drainage
There is only one true boss for a drainage contractor, only one who can’t be negotiated or compromised with and that is the all powerful weather. We have a love / hate relationship with the weather although when it’s love we tend to quietly accept it, only to scream loudly then its hates turn. And it is this time of year when we tend to complain about the weather.
Rainfall has been high in nearly all of the UK since late November and temperatures have been low, very little of the water that has fallen has left the land via evaporation. The vast majority of the water has either been soaked up by the land or found its way into the watercourses. Our job is to help with that process, but in order to lay pipe we need large-ish machinery, which does not mix well with wet land.
Our machinery is designed to cope with the wet and when we do encounter wet conditions more often than not we don’t have a problem. However I think that statement rather misses the point, we are in the field to improve the soil, that is our goal, even if we are physically able to install pipework, if we have compacted the soil or leave deep ruts than we are no achieve our goal. Soil strength has a direct relationship with its water content, wet soil is weak and easy to compact and damage. If the ground is wet, keep off it. Now I know that it is not always possible to keep to that rule, sometimes damage has not be done, and if a wet spot is still wet in a dry August then it is never going to dry without a drain, but if it is possible it is better to wait for drier times.
We always try to look after the soil and if it’s too wet we keep off. This policy often causes us problems, it has led to us losing contracts and means that we are almost certain to lose money in January and even into February, but I’m convinced it is the right thing to do. Soil health is at the heart of what we do and it should, whenever possible, come first.
Visit the Farm Services website to find out more about the benefits of using a professional land drainage contractor
Farm Services Limited is seeking the right candidates to join the company. Founded in 1942 the company has a number of vacancies in its drainage teams. You will be part of a drainage team installing pipe work in the agricultural, construction and sportfield sectors.
Ideally the candidates will have experience operating plant such as tractors, wheeled excavators and 360 degree excavators (CPCS cards a plus) However the most important attribute is the right attitude, we’re looking for people willing to get stuck in and work hard. In return you will receive onsite training and the possibility of rapid promotion.
Visit our website for more details about Farm Services Limited land drainage services