Out in the fields of gold

Continuing his series of regular articles, estate agent Trevor Cooper takes a closer look at the island's 'green lungs' – and how you can make use of them.

Out in the fields of gold

Continuing his series of regular articles, estate agent Trevor Cooper takes a closer look at the island's 'green lungs' – and how you can make use of them.

THERE is something quintessentially 'Guernsey' about owning a field.

A great many local people, certainly the majority, like the idea of having one to call their own even without any particular purpose or use for it in mind.

Planning laws are extremely strict about what fields can be used for and the definition of agricultural use is precise.

The written policy for the States Environment Department's current Rural Area Plan places great emphasis on protecting and enhancing the openness of the landscape and opportunities for development are extremely limited, even for horticultural or agricultural purposes.

Fields are measured locally in vergees and perches. One perch is 441sq. ft (21ft x 21ft) and there are 40 perches in one vergee. According to the States archivist, Dr Darryl Ogier, these measures are associated with measuring sticks or poles, much as the term 'rods' was used in England. Both words originate from Norman French and derive from the Latin 'virga' and 'pertica'.

Two and a half vergees make one acre, or close enough to an acre for that equation to be accepted.

But woe betide the estate agent who advertises Guernsey land as measured in acres as stern letters are written denouncing the Anglicisation of Guernsey traditions.

There is also a smaller measurement of feet, or 'pied' but that is seldom used.

The French system of using hectares is also uncommon in Guernsey, possibly because one hectare is equal to virtually two and a half acres and few fields or smallholdings in Guernsey are large enough to quote in terms of hectares.

As a visual aid, and at the risk of antagonising the purists, one acre is about the size of an undersized football pitch, or a good size school pitch. It is thought that the word acre is from the Anglo-Saxon word 'aecer' for growing crops or for a fertile field, regardless of its size. The reference to acre in size originated later from the amount of land tillable by one man using one ox in one day.

Fields in the Middle Ages were long and narrow, because of the difficulty in turning a plough, and typically one furlong in length. A furlong (meaning furrow length and measuring 220 yards) was deemed to be the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting.

Dr Andrew Casebow, the agriculture and environment adviser for the Commerce and Employment Department, has studied and written extensively about agricultural land in Guernsey and thanks to him we know that Guernsey measures approximately 38,660 vergees in total and that slightly more than 15,000 vergees is agricultural land, with two-thirds dedicated to dairy farming, but only one-tenth used for arable farming. The remainder is used by horse owners and others for different purposes.

Potato growing has seen a resurgence in recent years but whilst it is economic to grow a small amount of main crop potatoes for home use in the island, it is not economically viable to export them.

Jersey famously exports Jersey Royal new potatoes that reach the mainland market a week or two before English-grown varieties. However, this market is coming under attack from cheaper imports grown in North Africa and Mediterranean countries.

The recent drive towards self-sufficiency – or, at least, supplementing the grocery shopping basket – has inspired individuals to grow their own while market gardeners sell hedge veg and a range of produce at the highly popular farmers' markets.

This is nothing new, of course, and well within living memory a broad cross-section of people grew flowers in their spare time or tended a greenhouse or two in their back gardens – motivated by the profit of export but also keeping plenty for home.

Recent demand for allotments has increased and a few previously neglected greenhouses are thankfully back in business.

Further into the past, parts of fields or land otherwise difficult to cultivate for crops remained as furze brakes, or 'jaoniere'. The prolific gorse and bracken would be cut, dried and stored to be used as fuel in the furze ovens now coveted in old farmhouses.

These furze brakes were valuable in their time but less sought after now, other than by keen environmentalists or for hobby pursuits. This is reflected in the market value for furze brakes, which currently ranges between £3,000-£5,000 per vergee, less than half the cost of good fields. Similarly, undulating or steeply sloped fields – best described as meadows – tend to sell at £5,000-£8,000 per vergee.

A combination of factors makes a good field. The land is best flat, even if gently sloping, and must drain well. The condition of the soil is reflected in the quality of the grass, which should have no noxious or only a few less-harmful weeds.

Continual grazing by horses and particularly herds of cows has a detrimental effect over many years as the grass roots are bitten out and high levels of ammonia build up in the soil. Hay-making is less demanding on a field's resources, but the grass has to be good quality to begin with.

Good vehicular access to a field is useful and the state of the boundary hedges is important, with hawthorn or any other trees or bushes on the earthbanks providing welcome shade and shelter for grazing animals.

Ready access to mains water or a borehole saves transporting it for thirsty animals.

Two auction sales of various fields by Martel Maides in recent years have illustrated how the market value for good fields has risen. Currently it stands between £9,000 and £12,000 per vergee.

However, it is difficult to be precise and ill-advised to generalise – particularly when considering a field's worth to a buyer who already owns adjoining fields and even more so to the owner of an adjoining residential property.

The level of this special interest is best measured by the value the field would add to the purchaser's holding or property as a whole.

The rental value of fields is minimal and the term 'peppercorn rent' often describes the £100 per annum more or less paid together with the responsibility for maintenance of the hedges and any ditches.

Rents can be higher when fields are used for commercial arable farming but good tenants are valuable in themselves, as unkempt fields quickly fall into further disorder.

Most importantly for all of us, Guernsey's fields and open land provide the 'green lungs' of the island, preserving wildlife habitats and maintaining the diverse environment from which we all benefit.

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