How often do you step out of your “field”?

The relevance – and challenges – of non-field crops for agricultural museums

“Bruising” furze, Courtesy of Ulster Folk & Transport Museum Collections*

Farmers around the world do much more than farming, often taking on stewardship for much of the environment we associate with the countryside and important activities that do not usually “fit” into field agriculture can be a vital part of farming economies. A good example of this is furze (Ulex spp., also known in English as gorse or whins), which played a major role in fodder production and had many other traditional uses.

Les paysans à travers le monde s’occupent souvent autant de l’environnement que de l’agriculture dans le sens strict du terme. L’ajonc (Ulex spp.) en est un bon exemple, ayant servi pour l’approvisionnement en fourrage, entre autres utilisations traditionnelles.

Bauern weltweit betreiben oft viel mehr als reine Landwirtschaft und sind wichtige Partner in Umweltschutzfragen. Der Stechginster (Ulex spp.) liefert ein interessantes Beispiel in Bezug auf die Rolle einer Pflanze als Trockenfutter und einer ganzen Reihe anderer Verwertungen.

furze – Ulex spp. fodder field agriculture environmental stewardship

It takes but a brief glance at the environment to see how very much farmers around the world affect their immediate environment, from mending fences to keeping roads passable, from spreading microbial disease in effluents to campaigning for safe bio-controls in the place of pesticides. The engagement of farmers with crops outside their fields – if and when they are mainly in field agriculture – is often considered incidental and nigh invisible. A good example of this involves the many fodder crops aside from hay, or even such crops as “tree-hay”, that do not fit into the stereotyped schema of what we give our animals to eat when they cannot graze. In Irish testimony, furze (Ulex spp.) was often part of a fodder complex, mixed with straw, hay, bran or boiled turnips to make it still more delectable.

Popular tradition and even law (Kelly 42, 380-1, 395) saw furze land as valuable and the plant can “talk” – if you are there to listen, since its pods make a loud popping noise in warm weather when they expel their ripened seeds. Since it flowers nearly year-round, it gave rise to the popular saying “when kissing’s out of fashion, the gorse is out of bloom”.

O.W. Thomé, 1885, Wikimedia Commons; Wikipedia Creative Commons, “Whin or gorse on Fife coastal trail”

Furze may not be just “one” thing, in some places. Also known in English as whins or gorse, there may be up to seven species that hybridize easily in the British Isles, though they were usually seen as quite distinct in local traditions. The plant had uses in addition to fodder, as especially noted for Ireland: as a dye plant, as a natural harrow, to sweep chimneys, line storage pits, provide bedding for human and litter for animals. Furze ash was used as fertilizer, plant extracts as medicinals and to make soap, as well as being an important cash crop as fuel for bakers, to such an extent that it was considered a major fire hazard when stored in great quantities in towns.

Furze is a fire-climax plant and regenerates strongly when burned, so that some research might indicate the plant self-oriented genetically to be more flammable! It was once a familiar sight in the environment as ditched hedging and in constructing drainage systems and, today, it is often used, as is its cousin, broom (Genista), for land reclamation, because of the nitrogen-fixing capacities and the cover they provide for wildlife.

Nutritionally, furze provides an important protein supplement to livestock, but obviously it was far too prickly to suit the mucosae of horses, cattle, goats and sheep, so it had to be processed to “gentle” it. Once done, the plant was especially valued for putting a sheen onto animals’ coats and its protein content was a special boost to working animals.

Lucas Furze billhook and hand guard and how to make a furze mitten, both p. 76, Courtesy of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society*

Billhooks with leather hand guards or straw “mittens” were used to gather it. It was softened for use as fodder by “bruising” because, unlike broom, it is quite prickly. Agricultural engineers and scientists term this process “promoting bioaccessibility”. Furze was often bruised with a mallet, while in some kind of hard support, such as a furze stone or whinstone. Such stones were often found near homes or stables. In some cases in Irish tradition, the processing was even done inside the house in a furze pit not far from the family fire, so it was also a winter task in a convivial spot. Furze was at times worked with flails with an iron beater or with beetles like those used to pound potatoes. There is even mention, in a case in Scotland, of a circular trough for furze with a rounded stone pulled by a horse. Of course, there is ample attestation to furze or whinny mills, and Mackenzie of Ross-shire in Scotland was producing these for “export” to other parts of the British Isles as early as the 1840s. Mechanized furze “machines” followed upon these early versions and at times were so large that they needed a special building for themselves.

“Bruising” furze; the second method could be done outdoors or indoors, Courtesy of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society*

 Another technique involved using a chopper on furze in a ground-level trough as one would a pestle with a single-bladed or cross-bladed head. In fact, for hand processing, a pounding technique could precede or follow a chopping technique to produce a “mash”. This sort of “food” ferments quickly, but – as today with dark “homemade” hay – animals often especially liked the taste. (N.B. don’t try letting it ferment yourself for a demonstration – it is against EU regulations!) Some testimony speaks of special skills, of the right “trick” to turn the chopper while bringing it down, that accelerated the work and produced a better mash. Lack of information on such tricks may disguise the intricacies of processing furze effectively and this recalls one of the remarks Isabel Grant made about Highland Scotland: when she asked a potential collection contributor about the price he wanted for an implement, he stressed that it was very valuable: it might not take long to make it, but it took a lifetime to learn how to use it (Grant 104).

There may once have been a particular geography of the tools, techniques and types of furze used, but it has escaped us, with the passage of time, so do remember in collecting testimony to enhance your array of implements: if you know someone who knows how to do it, catch them while you can!

Meanwhile, how often do you step out of your familiar “fields” to look at the plants beyond them, once valued for so many reasons? Tell us about it.

Notes and Literature: There is a summary of a fine volume on hay and hay-making in AIMA Newsletter N° 11: “A Place for Hay. Flexibility and Continuity in Hay Meadow Management” in MARTOR The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Journal 21/2016, see For the British Isles, discover the delights of everything you ever wanted to know about furze in A.T. Lucas “Furze. A Survey and History of its Uses in Ireland”, the entire issue of Béaloideas, Vol. XXVI, Dublin, 1958-1960. The remark about the value of an implement comes from Isabel Grant Highland Folk Ways, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 1961/1997, and in his Early Irish Farming, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998, Fergus Kelly details the value of land as seen through the plants that grew on it.

* For kind permission to use the illustrations from Lucas’ issue on furze, special thanks to Rionach uí Ógáin and Cristóir Mac Cárthaigh of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society, and Michelle Ashmore of the National Museums of Norther Ireland Picture Library for facilitating authorization to use the photograph from the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum Collection.

Cozette Griffin-Kremer, Associate Researcher, CRBC Brest,

Marlene Hugoson and Cozette Griffin-Kremer at the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum in Bucarest, Romania, 2018