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28 Jan 2009

The bocage: in trouble?

In most countries, fields are separated by hedges of trees and shrubs, or by fences. In Normandy (and also parts of Brittany, Picardie, and Devon) the separation is usually by earth and stone barriers with trees, called bocage. The word comes from bosc, meaning woodland, as in the English word bosky, meaning wooded. They are part of what makes the countryside so attractive.

The geology of much of Normandy includes rich earth, but with lots of stones of varying sizes randomly distributed,. This is good for building, but gets in the way of farming. Since the fifteenth century, fields have been marked by dragging the stones to form barriers, covering them with soil to a height of 1.5 to two metres, and planting trees, such as oak, beech and hazel on the tops. The advantages are that these barriers are solid all year round, unlike ordinary hedges which can be relatively easy for animals to get through, are not affected by individual trees dying or falling leaving gaps, and require little or no maintenance, or raw material costs as fences do.

The trees also provide firewood and timber, and have a value. The plan cadastrale, the equivalent of the UK Land Registry, marks every field with an indicator of which side owns the bocage. Two of our neighbours fell out very seriously when one sold a field to the other, and cut down the trees the day before the sale was completed. The buyer considered this robbery, because he would have paid less for the fields without the trees, the seller considered the sale was of the field, not the trees, and the buyer had no right to the wood.

The bocage is made up of quite small fields, which is now becoming a problem. In about half of France, the law dictates that people can only leave real property – buildings and land – to their spouses, and then equally to all the children. You cannot will it to who you like. The result has been that over the generations, farms have become smaller and smaller, as they have been divided up with each successive generation. Sometimes, one child will buy out or rent from the others to keep a large enough farm, but today there are two very serious issues. Whilst it used to be that 20 hectares of land was enough to support a family, these days it is nowhere near enough, what with milk quotas, fuel and maintenance of tractors, and taxes. Families even up to quite recently could be largely self sufficient, growing all their own vegetables, keeping a pig and a sheep or two, and a dozen cows. One of our neighbours made her own butter and cheese, an annual pig provided ham and pate for the year, and apart from delicacies and essentials such as clothes, water and electricity, hardly needed any cash. That standard of living is no longer acceptable.

Part of the effects of this historic process is that any one farm will have its fields all over the place, rather than as one big parcel of land. Farmers can spend a large part of their time driving their tractors from one field to another, moving cows and sheep quite long distances, and generally being limited in how they use their land. One farmer we know well has about thirty small fields spread all over three communes, a distance of five or six kilometres.

The other problem is that with ever more joint owners of land and houses, it can be impossible to sell. It is not just, as with one friend, getting all six siblings to agree to sell a house, but that often there can be forty or more distant cousins all owning one field or building, many of who are completely unknown and untraceable. This is one of the causes of some houses being abandoned. And of course, family feuds are not unknown, and one intransigent person can prevent all the others making a deal.

The French government are trying to help by brokering matching sales of fields: Farmer A sell a field to Farmer B who has the two next to it, and Farmer B sells a field to Farmer C, who in turn sells one to Farmer A. The complication is that of course each farmer thinks the field he is giving up is worth far more than the field he is receiving, irrespective of any government sponsored financial adjustments. The one irrevocable fact of farming throughout the world is that every farmer devoutly believes that 'my land' is always worth far more than 'your land', because it is better earth, better maintained, gets better sun and rain and so on.

The roadways between fields – well tracks, mostly – have been worn down over the centuries, by horses, cattle, sheep, wagons and people, and are often two or three metres lower than the fields on either side. In England these sunken paths are often called 'hollow ways'. In summer they can be effectively green tunnels.

The bocage presented a serious problem during the Normandy landings from D-Day. Looking at maps, the military, especially the Americans, assumed that their tanks would just drive right through the countryside. The senior British, French and other officers who had visited Normandy before the war, or done their research, knew how wrong that was.

Firstly, the tanks, particularly the US Shermans, would just rise up at the front, exposing the unarmoured underside, rather than passing through, stopping that sort of progress. The second point is that the hollow ways were narrow, so tanks could not turn round once they started along one, and they could only fire their guns straight ahead; the barrels could not be swivelled. Proved to be a bit of an issue.

Today, there are two factors causing the increasing loss of the bocage. Farmers are increasingly wanting larger fields for efficiency, and easier use of mechanisation. This is being driven by a sad trend to keep many cattle indoors, and feed them silage, mostly maize, and chemical feeds. This means growing large amounts of maize, which is harvested by large machines, which need large fields. The cattle produce less milk, of lower quality, but I believe fatten more quickly for beef. Once the bocage has been cleared, it will never return.

At the same time, local councils are finding that they have a little bit of money each year, and are using it to 'improve' visibility in country lanes. This is done by widening some parts, which means ploughing up the bocage, adding a couple of metres to the road width, and putting up wire fences on the new road edges. They are also removing twists and turn where they can, and in many places just replacing the bocage with fences that can be seen through. The idea is to reduce traffic accidents. Doesn't seem to work: people just drive faster on the new straight bits, and don't slow down enough on the bends.

I think that progressively much of the more obvious bocage will disappear: in the last ten years the roads from the nearest town to where we live have mostly been modified, and it is less interesting a journey as a result. Animal husbandry might change, but increasing awareness of and concern for the welfare of the beasts will help to diminish the trend.

It seems, however, that progress almost always involves swapping something rare and special for more of something cheap and worse.

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