Summer Conference 2015 - Abstracts

Abstracts are shown on this page in alphabetical order of the main author and will be updated as they are received.
See here for the programme.

Armagh Observatory's Weather Records Over More Than 200 Years: Ground Truth and Implications for Climate Change
Mark E. Bailey
Armagh Observatory

Armagh Observatory's climate station has been continuously maintained since December 1794, with readings currently taken by the Grounds and Meteorological Officer and by other staff at 09:00 (GMT). This is the longest continuous daily climate series from a single site in the UK and Ireland and one of the longest in the world. Calibration of the Armagh data by Astronomer John Butler and colleagues has enabled this record to be used not just for indications of how wider, world-wide climate change has impacted on a site in the north of Ireland over more than 220 years, but also to provide clues (and possible constraints) on the causes of climate change and how these underlying factors may be impacting on the weather that we experience. This talk will provide a brief overview of the Observatory's climate change record, with the intention of putting recent events into a slightly longer historical context. It will highlight also how the decadal and longer climate cycles, which are observed in the Observatory's historical climate record and still not fully understood, suggest the need for caution in extrapolating recently observed climate change to the weather of the medium-term future.

Gleanings from the tree-ring record: events that may have affected Irish agriculture
Mike Baillie
School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University, Belfast

When an Irish oak tree ring chronology was initially constructed the primary interest was in the year-to-year detail as that underpinned the cross-matching signal. The end result, however, was a robust annual record of mean oak growth stretching back over seven millennia. When that record was examined it was realized that there was nothing monotonous about the Irish environment over longer timescales. This paper will look at a number of episodes in recent centuries where it is apparent that Irish oaks, as well as the human population, found themselves chastened by whatever was going on. The fact that oaks were affected at 1816 and 1740 and in the mid seventeenth century implies that there was a strong environmental component to the happenings, something that may well have had implications for Irish agriculture at those times. 

Ulster Flax and Linen
Jonathan Bell

Ulster Folk and Transport Museum

‘View the North of Ireland … agriculture is there in ruins; … the whole region is the disgrace of the kingdom … No other part of Ireland can exhibit the soil in such a state of poverty and desolation … The cause of all these evils is the [linen] fabric.’ (Young 1780, 162-163)

For Arthur Young and other observers, the most obvious impact of linen production was on farm size, but this paper will focus on problems which could arise from flax cultivation, such as exhaustion of soil, or potential pollution from flax dams, and most importantly, the high labour inputs required in the home production of linen. Flax cultivation required land which was cleared of stones and weeds by hand, and hand pulling of the crop was back breaking. Steeping and spreading flax was notoriously heavy, stinking work. Hackling, scutching, spinning and weaving were also labour intensive tasks, requiring inputs from all able-bodied members of the farming family. However, profits from linen production meant that families engaged in linen production could rely on money from spinning and weaving linen when prices were good, and fall back on the security of potatoes and oats when markets for linen were poor. It was this relative security which led to the charge that weaver-farmers neglected the farming element of this dual economy. The situation changed drastically when spinning and weaving became urbanised and industrialised during the nineteenth century, mostly manufactured from imported flax Farming families now had to survive without the income from linen production, a situation reflected in the suffering reported in Lurgan and other Armagh workhouses during the Great Famine.

History of Apple Growing and Cider Production in Ireland
Graeme Cross

Top Fruit Development Adviser, College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise

Ireland’s predominantly oral tradition for recording and relating early social history means that written archives are often limited to those from monastic settlements and the early Church. However, even the “anecdotal evidence” from these times indicates a strong connection between the cultivation of apple trees and the perceived social status of families and clans involved in such practice. Not least, there was comment made (and praise bestowed) on the quality of fermented apple juice (cider) available to the kings, chieftains and their guests in provinces such as Ulster. Unfortunately, the effect of such refreshment on the clan members’ ability in the field of battle is not recorded and can only be surmised!

Although Armagh has long claimed the title of Ireland’s “Orchard County”, significant orchard plantations existed across the island until the latter half of the nineteenth century, and associated with each was an established cider manufacturing tradition which used up excess and/or substandard fruit, while giving the producers a valuable commodity for bartering and trade. Hence, Irish cider production appears to have been an integral part of domestic farming for many centuries and may account for a significant proportion of the apple varieties currently recognised as being typically Irish (most recently characterised and documented through the work of the Armagh Orchard Trust).
The recent resurgence in interest for craft foods and drinks has included a significant rise in the manufacture of local beers and ciders, mainly through newly established micro-businesses. Ireland can once again boast a number of distinct artisan ciders, not least in the north-east of the island. Each cider producer can lay claim to some share in the country’s history and heritage for cider, but now faces challenges unique to our modern production process and market trends.

This presentation will endeavour to illustrate a little of the flavour and interest harvested from the subject across the years.

Willow cultivation and biomass cropping — the early days
Malcolm Dawson

Applied Plant Science Division Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Northern Ireland Horticulture and Plant Breeding Loughgall (Retired)

Coppicing has been used as a woodland management tool for thousands of years. Its origins and diversity are as interesting as they are complex. It can be traced back to Neolithic (10,000-4,000BC) times by archaeologists who have excavated wooden tracks over boggy ground made entirely of coppiced material.The word 'coppice' comes from the French word 'couper', meaning to cut and it centres on the ability of native broadleaved species to regenerate from the cut stumps.. All broadleaves coppice but some are stronger than others. The strongest are ash, hazel, oak, sweet chestnut, lime and of course willow whilst the weakest include beech, wild cherry.

The Department of Agriculture’s research and development programme began in the mid-1970s and took the ancient art of coppicing focusing on Salix to develop its production using modern techniques.

The drivers behind the research and development programme have changed over the years. It began as an investigation into its potential as a source of alpha cellulose for the manufacture of high quality paper. The focus changed during the oil crises of the 1980s to evaluating the opportunity it offered as an energy source . Further interest was sustained with government policies for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to combat global warming. Additionally disease control emerged as a significant factor in production and a major programme was initiated to investigate the control of Melampsora leaf rust using non-chemical techniques.

It became obvious early in the programme that merely focusing on the agronomy of the cropping system was insufficient to achieve the potential it had to offer. Consequently the programme expanded to address areas such as conversion, utilization and to maximize its economic potential by adding value to the crop through its potential use as a bioremediation system to deal with polluting wastes. The structure of farming in Northern Ireland with average farm size of around 40 hectares dictated that successful projects were likely to be limited in size the development of these areas led to cooperation and joint projects with a wide international partnership with public and private organizations from throughout Europe and United States of America. 

The Grass Seed Industry in Ulster
David Johnston
Forage Grass Breeder,
Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute Loughgall

Grass seed was at one time an important cash crop on many farms in Ulster. It is believed that the expertise of grass seed production was brought to the Province by Scottish farmers in the early part of the nineteenth century and during the years preceding the 2nd World War, production was around 15,000 tons per annum. After the war, the major effort within the UK to become self sufficient in terms of food supply, resulted in rotational farming and grass for hay and grazing became an important part of the rotation. Subsequently this resulted in an increased demand for grass seed and in the mid 1940s production in Ulster peaked at over 30,000 tons per annum. With an average yield of 6 cwt per acre, this was equivalent to 100,000 acres of production.

The main grasses produced locally were Irish Perennial and Irish Italian, two landraces which were well adapted to local conditions although neither were renowned for high yield or high herbage quality. In County Down a few farms also produced crested dogstail which was a valuable component in seeds mixtures for sheep grazing. The production process was highly labour intensive, cutting with scythes or horse drawn mowers and tying in sheaves. Some farmers used binders although these resulted in greater seed losses and by the late 1960’s the advent of the combine harvester allowed the crop to be direct combined. However, this was one of the factors which led to the demise of the industry as farmers were much more attracted to growing cereals which were easier to harvest than grass seed and the grain could be used on the farm.

In the early days of grass seed growing, control of weeds was a big issue, as herbicides weren’t readily available until the late 1940s and in wet harvests seasons, crops often succumb to Blind Seed Disease, a fungal pathogen which attacked the maturing seed, destroying the embryo. Further factors which led to the eventual elimination of the crop in the early 1980s included the breeding of superior grasses in Great Britain and Continental Europe, which were not available to grass seed producers in Ulster. Furthermore, the system of production changed to direct combining and while it was much less labour intensive than manual handling of sheaves, it depended upon long spells of dry weather at harvest time. Consequently production moved from Ulster to large arable farms in England which had lower rainfall and were well equipped with modern harvesting and drying equipment. While there have been a few attempts to reintroduce grass seed production onto local farms, the risk factor is too high and it is therefore an industry which will soon be a distant memory. 

Flax in prehistoric northern Europe: insights from archaeobotany
Meriel McClatchie, 

School of Archaeology, University College Dublin

There is a very long history of flax production in northern Europe. Flax was among the first domesticated crops introduced during the Neolithic period, along with cereals and legumes. Flax is what we might call a ‘multi-functional’ crop. Fibres can be extracted to produce linen clothing, ropes and sacking. Oil from the crushed seeds may be used in cooking and lighting, as a preservative and in medicines. The by-products of oil and fibre production can also be used in fodder, bedding material and fuel.

Archaeological evidence for flax includes preserved botanical remains discovered during archaeological excavations, such as seeds, capsule fragments and stems of flax, as well as microscopic remains of ancient flax pollen. Flax products, such as fibres and textiles, are occasionally found, as well as the tools utilised during the various stages of textile production. Additional information on the preparation and use of flax is provided by written and illustrated sources.

The focus of this presentation will be archaeobotanical remains from prehistoric Ireland and other areas of northern Europe, particularly Germany and Scandinavia. The archaeobotanical evidence will be combined with results from artefactual, genetic and experimental studies to investigate the introduction and development of flax production across prehistoric northern Europe.

Toasting the Oatcake: an exploration of the use of the hardening stand in bread-making
Regina Sexton
University College Cork, Ireland

Until the late nineteenth century, oats (Avena sativa) were an important agricultural crop and dietary staple in Ireland. The status of oatmeal foods (pot-based and baked) as staple though inferior items in the diet is well-supported by archaeobotanical and historical evidence from the early medieval period. By the modern period, oat consumption had contracted as the potato gained a stronghold in the rural diets, especially amongst the poor. However, while largely displaced by increasing potato cultivation throughout the eighteenth century, oats retained a presence in northern and north western (and some eastern) counties thereby given a distinctive regional pattern to the diet in these areas. Today oats remain a popular though minor component of the Irish diet and several grades of commercially produced oatmeal and oat bran continue to be popular as breakfast cereals. And while the dietary status and meal function of oats have changed considerably over the last century, the enduring popularity of oats represents a remarkable continuity of traditional taste preferences and culinary customs. However, their current position in the diet owes as much to their low price and their reputed positive health properties as it does to an inheritance of traditional and immutable food practice. Indeed, it can be argued from a historical perspective that the ways in which oats were affected by and responded to changing social, economic and cultural conditions can be taken as an index, if not a microcosm, of the course of Irish food and culinary history.

Despite the association of oats with the concepts and patterns of tradition, retention and local and regional custom, very few academic studies have addressed the subject of oats and oatmeal foods. And by extension, no research has been directed to the material culture and hearth utensils associated with preparing, drying and toasting oatcakes. This presentation will focus on a specific utensil, the hardening stand (variously bread stick, bread iron, harden’ stand), that was used in conjunction with the griddle or bake stone before an open fire to dry-out oatcakes before consumption and/or storage

The presentation will take three separate but inter-dependent approaches: in the first instance the paper will address the descriptive elements of the utensil – materials (wood, iron and stone), form, function, evolution in the craft of their creation and the incorporation of aesthetic elements of design; it will then take a developmental viewpoint in linking the emergence, development and decline of the utensil with changing patterns of agriculture, food production and preparation and the increased commercialisation of the food industry in the post-Famine period. Finally it will be argued that harden stands are significant representatives of Irish folk art with utilitarian, aesthetic and symbolic value and meaning for tradition societies in a rural context.

Settlement and Farming in County Armagh
Mervyn Watson

Ulster Folk and Transport Museum

Commenting on the fertility of the land in County Armagh the Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland claimed;
 "Though forming pendicles of sterility, and little expanses of moorish or mountain wilderness, the general soil is not withstanding excellent – occasionally prime, prevailingly fertile and rarely incapable of improvement and cultivation" (1843).

This paper will look at aspects of arable and pastoral farming in the county during the late eighteenth, nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. It will examine the influence of population growth and crop production on farm size, tillage practices and livestock management. In particular it will focus on the importance of Armagh in the development of spade technology during the Great Famine and the role of local spade makers and landlords in the often tempestuous Spade versus Plough debate of the period. It will also discuss the suitability of local breeds of livestock for small scale farming, the impact of the consolidation of holdings and the standardisation of farming methods on agricultural production in the county during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Poster abstracts and confirmed posters

Grazing in silvopasture and fruit orchards - historical experience and future potential
Jim McAdam, Rodrigo Olave and Frances Ward
Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute, Loughgall, Co. Armagh

In Ireland, historically cattle grazed in woodlands but in recent years tree cover in the Republic of Ireland and N. Ireland has decreased to approximately 12 % and 8% respectively, most of which based on high density commercial conifer plantations and farming based on livestock grazing by sheep or cattle. Apple growing in Ireland has been recorded from the 7th and 8th centuries AD, being listed in Old Irish Law texts as one of the seven nobles of the wood. In 1884, Bramley Seedling was introduced to the province and gradually became the principle commercial variety. Currently, Ireland has approx, 2120 ha of commercial orchards of which 70% of production is carried out on 233 farms in the Co. Armagh area.

In the majority of orchards the grass strips between the trees are mowed regularly and not grazed. There is scope to graze animals between wide-spaced trees or plant trees into pasture (silvopasture) or to graze conventional orchards. A trial was established at AFBI Loughgall, Co. Armagh in 1989 to investigate the feasibility of establishing silvopasture and compare the system with grass-only and woodland as part of a wider UK network of silvopastoral trials. The programme demonstrated that broadleaved trees could be established in pasture and that wide spaced ash and sycamore planted at 5m x 5m (400 trees/ha) grew better (height and diameter) than trees planted as a conventional woodland at 2m x 2m (2,500 trees/ha). Firstly sheep, then cattle performed well under the trees though there were initial tree protection issues. The system proved capable of delivering a range of financial incomes (meat, wool, timber, biomass energy from pre commercial pruning & thinning) and ecosystem services (carbon storage, biodiversity, and prevention of nutrient runoff). Some farmers traditionally graze orchards for all or part of the season. This has the benefit of additional income, removal of leaf litter (and hence reduced disease overwintering) and cost saving.

Although farmer uptake in silvopasture has been low in 2009 there was a renewed interest on the system when it was accepted as a viable land use option by the EU and built into support measures. An agroforestry option is likely to be included as the new Rural Development Plan for farmers in N. Ireland and is available to farmers as a forestry option by DAFM in the Republic of Ireland. The management guidelines for these options, and to encourage more grazing in orchards, are based on the research carried out at AFBI Loughgall. The experience of grazing livestock in trees appears to have wider potential across the island where grazing by cattle or sheep in silvopasture and orchards can offer a novel sustainable intensification option for rural enterprises in Ireland. 

The Apple Heritage Orchard – Drumilly Bawn, Loughgall
Frances Ward and Seán Mac an tSaoir

Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute, Loughgall, Co. Armagh 

The development of the Heritage Orchard in Loughgall commenced in 2002, with the aim of preserving apple varieties associated with fruit growing in Ireland. The collection is continuously expanding as more old cultivars are rediscovered. There are presently over 112 varieties in the orchard.
Frances Ward and Seán Mac an tSaoir. Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute, Loughgall, Co. Armagh