The River Kongeå as a productive landscape
Today, we consider the river Kongeå as a consumption landscape; a natural resource that we utilise for recreational purposes. We go for walks along the river, enjoying the sight of the protected valley, the sound of birdsong and the water running in the river. There are many anglers. Others sail canoes on the river. But it has not always been this way.
Two hundred years ago the majority of the Danish population lived in the countryside. They were self-sufficient farmers who utilised all available natural resources. The river Kongeå was considered equally used for arable, meadow and heath in terms of manufacturing landscape. The river provided fish, water for irrigation of fields and meadows, as well as energy.
In line with industrialisation, the move from rural to urban areas and the welfare state, the public's view of the surrounding nature began to change. First the urban citizens began to use the country in the summer, where they enjoyed the open nature.
The welfare society gave all the town dwellers more leisure and vacation time. More and more people began to use nature as a recreational resource. The river Kongeå was no longer a part of the production landscape, but a part of the leisure landscape.
In the 1800s, the river Kongeå was a major part of the production landscape. The river was full of production systems. As part of the border organisation, they were registered in 1881. Records show that the water free course on the stretch from Fårkrog to Villebøl was hampered by an entire eighteen weirs. Only one weir was used by a mill. The remaining seventeen weirs were used for eel farming or meadow irrigation.
In 1881 six of the weirs were used for eel farming. Eel farming is known from the Middle Ages, and we know from written sources that eel farms existed in the river Kongeå in the 1600s. All traces of the eel traps have gone today, so do not know exactly what they looked like, but the likelihood is that it was a bridge with associated weirs with locks.
Traps or trap-like net bags were placed in the locks. When catching eels, some of the locks were equipped with traps, but others were open and allowed water to pass freely. You only caught only eels at night. During the day, the traps were emptied and cleaned. The eel traps had a dual function. Besides catching eels, smugglers at night could sneak across the river using the eel traps under the cover of darkness.
"The meadow is the field's mother". On the poor soils in western Denmark, the cattle manure production set the limit for the size of the fields. The cattle ate grass and meadow hay. Artificial irrigation of meadows promoted growth and gave a better and more stable production of grass and hay. The remaining eleven weirs with accompaning power wheels were used for meadow irrigation.
Upon registration in 1881, only one meadow irrigation system was found at the river Kongeå. In the following two decades, the meadow irrigation system along the river Kongeå was streamlined. The peasants worked together to improve the meadow irrigation. Power wheels were replaced by three major meadow irrigation systems, which each irrigated several plot owner's meadows.
The water flowed from the weirs in the river into dug irrigation channels. From the channels the water was passed through spouts down over the meadows between the channel and the river. South Jutland's largest meadow irrigation system was the river Kongeåen. South of Kongeåen, two long irrigation channels were used to water the meadows from Knag Mill to Hygum. North of Kongeåen, a very long channel irrigated the meadows from Sønderskov to Tobøl.
In the 1900s, a new form of production came about, namely fish breeding fish in dug-out ponds. Fish farming took over the weir and right of weir use from either an irrigation system or eel trap. From the weir, the water is passed through a series of dug-out ponds. This was done by a natural decline in the level. "Used water" was passed from the ponds through a channel into the river again. This water was contaminated with food and faeces.
As a result of nature restoration projects, fish farms with dug-out ponds are gradually disappearing. Many fish farms disappear completely, others are transformed into model fish farms.
Author: Linda Klitmøller, museum curator, Sønderskov Museum