Tithe maps and documents from Wales in the 1840s have allowed students to study and quantify changes in land use and field names in a way not previously possible.
The tithe maps and records, made available online through the Heritage Lottery funded Cynefin project at the National Library of Wales, were originally created to keep a record of tithes, a type of tax payable by farmers to the church.
The 180-year-old documents are being transcribed and digitised through the cynefin.wales website by an army of over 850 volunteers, making it possible to quickly access and analyse recorded information about who was farming where, who landowners were, what use was made of the land and what fields were called.
According to project manager Einion Gruffudd: "Only one million people lived in Wales in the 1840s compared with over three million today, but there were far more farms and much more land was used for arable production compared to today, even on the highest hills and mountains."
Mr Gruffudd said that farmland has been lost not only to urbanisation and reservoirs but also to forestry, while vast areas of what was previously used for arable production are now given over to grass or open mountain land.
"The tithe records don’t just categorise land, they also name the fields, enabling us to identify fields which are today under water, in the middle of busy towns, or deep in forests.
"We also know how much tithe was paid for farming them."
One unified digital map
The Cynefin project is also merging all the tithe maps of Wales to produce one unified digital map during a very transformative period in our history.
This map and all the associated transcribed information will be available to the general public free of charge and most of this is already accessible on the cynefin.wales website.
This information is also a great new source for academic research and is already being used by MA students from Aberystwyth University, commissioned by the Farmer’ Union of Wales to research historic land uses.
One of the students, Rhodri Evans said: "It’s great to have such convenient access to detailed information applied to virtually all of Wales.
"This source enables us to carry out new research in a way which was completely impractical before.
"For example, we now have a list of more than a quarter of a million field names which tell us a lot about the land and how it was farmed.
"We can also look closely at the area, location and use made of each field as it was in the 1840s, and compare that with today."
Nick Fenwick, the FUW’s head of policy, said: "The tithe maps are an invaluable source which allows us to study changes in the use of farmland in different parts of Wales and dispel some of the myths about how farming has changed.
"One of the most significant of these is the degree to which farming has become less intensive on higher ground during the past two centuries or so.
"The way in which field names have changed during the period, or remain in use to this day, is also important from an historical point of view, particularly where the names describe land use or historical events,” he added.
Some of the project’s early findings will be displayed at the Ty Mawr exhibition during the Royal Welsh Show.