Ridge and furrow

Ridge and furrow

The term ridge and furrow is often used by archaeologists and others to describe the pattern of peaks and troughs created in a field by the system of ploughing used in Europe during the Middle Ages. Early examples date to the immediate post-Roman period and the method survived until the 17th century in some areas. This ploughing style is also found in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

Ridge and furrow topography was a result of ploughing with non-reversible ploughs on the same strip of land each year.


Traditional ploughs turn the soil over in one direction, to the right. This means that the plough cannot return along the same furrow. Instead, ploughing is done in a clockwise direction around a long rectangular strip (a "land"). On reaching the end of the furrow, the plough is removed from the ground, moved across the unploughed "headland" (the short end of the strip), then put back in the ground to work back down the other long side of the strip. The width of the ploughed strip is fairly narrow, to avoid having to drag the plough too far across the headland.

This process has the effect of moving the soil in each half of the strip one furrow's-width towards the centre line.

In the Middle Ages each strip was managed by one small family, within large common fields (see strip cultivation), and the location of the ploughing was the same each year. The movement of soil year after year gradually built the centre up of the strip into a ridge, leaving a dip, or "furrow" between each ridge (note that this use of "furrow" is different from that for the furrow left by each pass of the plough). The building up of a ridge was called "filling" or "gathering". It is thought that the raised beds offered better drainage (on some well-drained soils the fields were left flat). The dip often marked the boundary between plots. Although they varied, traditionally a strip would be a furlong (a "furrow-long") in length, (220 yards, about 200 metres), and a chain wide (22 yards, about 20 metres), giving an area of one acre (about 0.4 ha), or about a day's ploughing.

Where ploughing continued over the centuries, later methods removed the ridge and furrow pattern. However, in some cases the land became grassland, and where this has not been ploughed since, the pattern has often been preserved. Surviving ridge and furrow may have a height difference of 18 to 24 inches (0.5 to 0.6 m) in places, and gives a strongly rippled effect to the landscape. When in active use, the height difference was even more, up to convert|5|ft|m in places. [http://www.bahs.org.uk/03n2a2.pdf Eyre, S R. "The Curving Plough-strip and its Historical Implications". Agricultural History Review 3 80-94] ]

Curved strips

When ploughing was done with large teams of small oxen (as it was during the early Middle Ages), the team and plough together were many metres long. This led to a particular effect in ridge and furrow fields. When reaching the end of the furrow, the leading oxen would meet the end first, and would be turned left along the headland, while the plough continued as long as possible in the furrow. When the plough eventually reached the end, the oxen would be turned around to walk rightwards along the headland, crossing the end of the strip, and they would then start down the opposite furrow, the plough following behind. By the time the plough reached the beginning of the furrow, the oxen would be ready to pull it forwards.

The result of this was to twist the end of each furrow slightly to the left, making these earlier ridge and furrows a slight reverse-S shape. This shape still survives in some places as curved field boundaries, even where the ridge and furrow pattern itself has vanished.

If the oxen had been turned right at the end of the furrow, by the time the plough reached the furrow's end they would be lined up along the headland, with some already past the beginning of the new furrow. These (with all their harness) would have to be moved awkwardly sideways into the furrow to be ready to plough. Turning to the left avoided a sideways move.

As oxen became bigger and ploughs more efficient, smaller teams were needed. These took less room on the headland, and straight ploughing became easier – and easier still when pairs of horses were used. Later ridge and furrow is therefore straight.


Some of the best-preserved ridge and furrow survives in the Midlands of England in the counties of:

Related forms

*Rig and furrow, cultivation ridges created by spade digging
*Lazy beds, cultivation ridges created by spade digging
*Cord rig, cultivation ridges created by spade digging
*Run rig, cultivation ridges created by ploughing
*Lynchets, sloping terraces on steep hillsides, created by gravity on hillslopes subject to ploughing
*Steam ploughing ridge and furrow looks like the medieval version but the ridges are usually broader and are always straightFact|date=November 2007
*Water-meadows, grassland with ridges and banks to control irrigation – superficially similar to ridge and furrow, but the pattern and use were very different


External links

* [http://www.geograph.org.uk/search.php?i=3741017 examples of ridge and furrow in photos on geograph.org.uk]

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