Hedged and occasionally walled fields provide the dominant character of the countryside of the forest today. This landscape was created by the gradual enclosure of the open fields and the clearance and enclosure of the woodland. Over a period of 349 years from Thorpe Underwood in 1492 to Collyweston in 1841 the communal system of open field agriculture of the 79 townships within the project area was extinguished and the land enclosed as consolidated farms held by individual landowners. Except for a few village greens, all the common rights were removed.
Kirby Great Pasture was as vast sheepwalk created out of open field arable well before the 1580s when this map was made. This enclosure may have been partly responsible for the depopulation of the southern part of the medieval village (reproduced with permission of Northamptonshire Record Office)
The process of enclosure and conversion to pasture began following the population decline of the 14th century when, especially on the poorer land, the production of wool became more profitable than grain. At first many of the new sheepwalks were still very large but enclosed fields.
Some enclosure took place in areas where depopulation had already occurred and the tenants moved away to better farms. But a degree of coercion was applied in other cases with tenants being forcibly removed from their villages. Monastic estates were amongst the earliest enclosers, having no qualms about evicting tenants from their arable farms to replace them with sheepwalks.
Because enclosure also involved the removal of common rights it could have a significant impact on the domestic economy of the peasants even where they weren’t ejected from their homes. As a result enclosure on a large scale was fiercely resisted by the local communities and sometimes led to riots, particularly where it was enclosure of woodland.