No less important than the insularity, location, and climate of Great Britain are the natural resources. Here, as in most countries, numerous natural resources are available among winch man is free to choose. Down to about A.D. 1400 the British had not advanced far enough in the scale of human culture to make much use of any resources except those depending upon the soil. There was, to be sure, a little mining of tin and lead; coal was shipped from Newcastle to London as early as the twelfth century, and there was a little trade across the North Sea and the English Channel. All this, however, was insignificant in comparison with agriculture. Wealth lay in crops and animals, and power was almost synonymous with the ownership of the land.
The soil of Great Britain varies greatly, but on the whole it is of only moderate quality. In the north, glacial drift causes the soil to be relatively uniform, although everywhere there is a difference between the much-leached soils of the wet west and the lessleached and more fertile soils of the drier east. In the less-glaciated or unglaciated parts there is much local diversity, and each soil has its special value. In general, the Fen area, around the Wash, where peat and silt have been reclaimed by drainage, is most suitable for potatoes, sugar beets, and other vegetables. The heavy clay soils farther inland are best for wood and grassland, and it is within their limits that the famous English hunting region lies. Loamy glacial soils support crops and fruit; and the light, sandy, limestone soils are used partly for crops and market gardening (with the addition of much manure), and partly for grazing sheep. Wheat and oats, the main cereals, grow best in well-drained loams and clays, but not in peaty soil or sand. Their distribution in Britain, however, depends on climate far more than on soil, as does that of all sorts of crops. Grass and oats are the great crops of the wetter west and cooler north; practically all other crops find their greatest development in the southeast.
This distribution of crops agrees with the distribution of natural vegetation. The drier eastern sections of Great Britain were originally covered by a continuation of the central European type of forest, but little of this now remains. Timber long ago became so valuable that only small sections, notably the Weald and the New Forest in Hampshire, have been left uncut. At present forests occupy not much more than 4 per cent of the whole area. They are increasing, however, especially in the Scottish mountains, owing to the interest of the landowners in reforestation.
In the west, natural grassland takes the place of the forest because of the abundant moisture which is also responsible for the vast extent of moorlands, especially in the mountains above 1,500 feet. The Scottish Highlands are an area of moors as are the Cumberland Mountains, the Pennine Chain, sections of Wales, and Exmoor and Dartmoor in the Cornish peninsula. Several sections of the moorland near Morecambe Bay in Lancashire and the Fens around the Wash are relics of its once greater extension ill the lowlands. These vast monotonous areas covered with moss and heather are familiar in many parts of England, and account for the great abundance of sheep. They contrast sharply with the cultivated fields of other sections. The Isle of Man in the Irish Sea offers an excellent local example of such a contrast, the mountainous rainy west being devoted to sheep-raising, and the drier east, in the rain shadow a few miles away, to agriculture.
In the use of the soil and of the agricultural possibilities described above there has always been more or less conflict between wheat together with other crops, on the one hand, and sheep together with cattle, on the other hand. The secret of this is that Britain lies close to the margin of the region where the climate permits the growth of wheat. If the climate were a little cooler or more humid wheat would not grow; with a somewhat greater, but still small, change of this same sort even oats, barley, and potatoes could not be relied upon. The wet western portions of Britain, and the uplands everywhere above 1,000 feet, are almost entirely devoted to grass and wild pasturage for sheep and cattle. The drier, lower, sections, especially in the east, raise much wheat and other food crops for man except in regions like the Weald south of London where poor soil causes the land to be used mainly for sheep in spite of the favorable climate. Moreover, during such periods as the fourteenth century the repeated failure of the crops by reason of wet summers has sometimes led to a great increase in sheep-raising and a consequent disturbance of agricultural labor and the prices of food. In later times the growth of oceanic transportation has had a corresponding effect, for, when food could be brought cheaply from beyond the sea, there arose a growing tendency to raise mutton, wool, beef, and dairy products instead of wheat. This means of course that crops like oats, barley, clover and turnips, which are fed to livestock, have increased greatly at the expense of wheat. Thus today Great Britain, with 58 million people or more, has only about the same area of wheat as has Colorado with only 4 million people. But the area devoted to wheat in Great Britain is almost equaled by the barley area. It is fully equaled by the area where turnips, mangolds, and even cabbage are raised for livestock, while oats exceed wheat by 90 per cent, and clover occupies nearly three times as much land as wheat. Moreover, permanent hay fields and pastures occupy 23 times as much land as wheat. The only other important crops are potatoes on one twelfth as large an area as in Germany, or one sixth as much as in France, and peas and beans which together occupy less than half as much land as in France and do not even equal the area allotted there to Jerusalem artichokes. Fruit trees and berry bushes occupy about as much space as peas and beans, but this is only 5 or 6 per cent as much as in France.