In school I learned about the British Agricultural Revolution - at the time this was explained as 'increased efficiencies due to crop rotation'. (This now seems a bit simplistic.

We know that in Scotland, the Highland Clearances were in part driven by the fact that farming sheep became more profitable than having farming tenants.

In this particular situation - something must have changed the economics of sheep farming. Was there increased demand for wool due to mechanisation of wool processing? Did a national market for mutton increase the price of sheep meat?

But there were many improvements in agriculture at this time:

  • crop rotation
  • enclosures
  • mechanisation of farming equipment
  • national markets for farming produce
  • better transport infrastructure for farming produce
  • decreased relative income of living on a farming lot compared to city factory jobs

My question is: What changed to make British Enclosures more profitable than tenanted subplots?


Edit: Explanation:

My reason for asking this question is that somewhere around the 16th-18th centuries - enclosures became profitable. Why did they become profitable? What changed?

Here we read:

Yes, the was a process called enclosure. It started in the 16th century in England, and picked up momentum in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Prior to the enclosure times, farming had taken places in small plots, with less fertile "common" lands in between for grazing or pasturing that could be used by anyone. Based on the economics of the Middle Ages, such "patchwork" agriculture was the best use of land.

An agricultural revolution that began in the 16th century, and extended to later centuries changed all that. Growing economies of scale made it more efficient to farm land in "bulk," even if some of the pieces didn't fit so well with others. So large landowners began to combine small pieces of lands into larger ones, "annexing" the small patches of formerly common land in between by "enclosing" them, and making them off limits to others. Sometimes, people were bought out of their lands or rights to common lands; fairly. At other times, rich people bent the law to "condemn," or otherwise "privatize" land that was formerly held by others, or by the public in common.

  • What do you mean by "the drivers for the"? Certainly there improvements in agriculture, as you mention; but why the indirection in your question, and what do you intend by such use ? Jan 6, 2018 at 19:34
  • I'm going to upvote this - I don't have time to do research now, but I am... not fully convinced by the existing answers. I suspect that greater availability of capital (both financial and technological) played a role, but that is not simple to support/refute.
    – MCW
    Jan 20, 2023 at 14:38
  • Sheep farming for wool was a big driver. "In Thomas More’s Utopia, Book I, (1516) the economic disparity between rich and poor, and the destruction of rural peasant society is laid at the feet of the extremely lucrative wool market and England’s ruling elite. The value of wool had so increased through the Middle Ages that land-owners had pushed small farmers off the land, fenced it, and turned that land into pastures for raising sheep." aknitwizard.com/2019/07/28/utopia-and-sheep
    – TheHonRose
    Jan 22, 2023 at 11:38

2 Answers 2


I see the struggle (edits you've made) with understanding the issue but it comes down to legal process of creating land owners - concept of enclosure, where previously it was not used as such (private ownership of land). Put it another way, motivation for pecuniary benefits. All the other factors matter, of course, but if the (previous) tenants were not motivated, they would not work the lands.

This article explains it.

  • Wow ... that article doesn't make any effort to conceal bias.... It also doesn't answer OP's core question - what changed at that point in history that made enclosure laws possible? Why not 50 years earlier or later?
    – MCW
    Jan 20, 2023 at 16:17

The question as it is framed is difficult to answer because every time and place was a bit different. All the changes in agriculture mentioned may have been relevant to different degrees in different cases. But at least in the earliest stages, a key factor that warrants emphasis (in addition to those mentioned in the question) is the impact of rapid population growth.

During most of the 14th and 15th centuries England's population steadily dropped, due largely to plague. As population recovered in the 16th century, more intensive forms of agriculture became possible, enabling conversions of waste into pasture and pasture into arable. So as England's population roughly doubled in about a century, it's fairly obvious that the economics of agriculture were changed by this. Later on in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, waves of population growth and enclosures at least roughly coincided, but at that point the interplay between demographics and techno-economic changes (the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions) were more complex.

Even in later periods, local waves of enclosure were driven at least in part by population growth and migration. For example, here is how Ian Whyte (2005, p. 49) describes certain forms of enclosure in northern counties of England:

Many commons had their margins nibbled away by encroachments made either by local people or incomers, a process which was tolerated where the amount of waste was large, creating patterns of small, irregular closes still clearly visible around the margins of former commons like Cartmel in the southern Lake District. Also widespread from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries was the practice of small groups of farmers enclosing areas of common with a ring fence and creating private stinted pastures which only they had the right to use.

Such informal enclosures weren't necessarily driven by greater profitability so much as by competition for growing numbers of people for limited land.

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