Dr. K.A.H.W. Leenders

Barbed wire was introduced in the Low Countries’ Kempen region in 1902. This had no effect on the reclamation of the commons, but it had a severe impact on the traditional landscape of the old fields around the settlements. The Kempen Region is a sandy district in the North of Belgium and the South of the Netherlands.

Most commons, institutionalised around 1300, were around 1800 already transferred from the villagers to the village as municipality. The villages sold them during the 19th century, mostly to entrepreneurs that planted trees on them. Pinus Silvestris was very popular after ca. 1850 as it produced timber for the Walloon coalmines. Only a minority of the former commons was made into farmland, as manure was always scarce in this sandy region. Only around 1907 the price of artificial fertiliser dropped far enough to make possible more reclamation into farmlands.

Barbed wire had here a big impact on the old fields around the villages and hamlets. The old fields were from medieval times fenced with hedges (oak and other) that were managed in mostly a 6-year cycle of cutting. The hedges were also not only a fence, but a integral part of the farm economy, producing wood for the hearth, the bread oven, tools, repairing the farm; the leaves became fodder and the bark was sold to make run for the leather industry. The same year 1902 that barbed wire was introduced, the leather industry in this region turned to tanning with chromium. The market for bark disappeared. For heating, increasingly coal came back from the mines that used the Pinus timber. Light rail trains transported the coal and later oil into the countryside. As most farms were by now build of bricks, the need for the wood of the hedges diminished even more.

With barbed wire as alternative, the hedges began to disappear quickly, giving the old part of the landscape a much more open character. Together with the planting of woods on the old commons, the openness of the landscape of the Kempen region tumbled into its opposite. Around 1800 the commons were open heathlands, while the field around the settlements were enclosed by hedges. Around 1950, the wire fences visually had opened those fields. The visually very closed Pinus-woods lay around them. Since then industrialisation and urbanisation changed the landscape even more.

version August 2nd, 2023

© Copyright : dr K.A.H.W. Leenders