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Making hay has sadly become a dying art

by Anna Pavord

Published 19/09/2015

Traditional Techniques: Over 90 per cent of our hay meadows have been lost over the past 100 years
Traditional Techniques: Over 90 per cent of our hay meadows have been lost over the past 100 years

All through August I listened for the ker-chunk, ker-chunk noise that means that the hay is being baled on our top field. But it hasn't happened.

Why? Hay meadows are supposed to be one of our most precious habitats. How many hands have been wrung over their disappearance? How many times have we been reminded that more than 90 per cent of them have been lost over the past hundred years? That remaining 10 per cent will be owned by trusts - the National Trust, county wildlife trusts - who depend for survival on other people's money, not their own. Or people like us who are lucky enough to have a bit of land, but don't make our living from it.

The field in question is the only flat one we have, a strip that runs for about quarter of a mile alongside a lane. That's important, as to make hay you have to be able to get machinery in and out easily. All our fields are pasture, unimproved pasture, so there was a fair chance that if we let this particular field (about four acres) grow up for hay, we could in time expect to see a reasonable meadow. Hay-making is an ancient technique. Farmers have done it for thousands of years, to provide food for stock during the winter months when the grass doesn't grow.

But for a good hay meadow you also need sheep, to nibble back the rubbish that always grows faster than the fine stuff. Ideally you are supposed to shut off the meadow at the end of March, let the grass grow and then cut it after the middle of July. You need five consecutive days of good weather to make hay. Five days and a lot of labour. It's not just the cutting. The grass then has to be tumbled about with a hay bob to help it dry. This might be done twice. Then the stuff has to be baled and carted under cover.

It's no wonder that early in the 20th century, that farmers gradually turned to silage as a new way of preserving grass. It's an easier, quicker and more profitable way of storing up winter fodder for your stock. Silage is cut green in May, chopped up and stored in pits or shrink-wrapped directly into bales in the field. Provided the bales are air-tight, natural acids pickle the grass and preserve it until it's needed. You need far less labour and you can get more than one cut in a season.

When we came here, our farming neighbour was already grazing his sheep on our land. He uses little parcels of pasture all over the place, because he hasn't enough land of his own to sustain his flock. He was willing to indulge the idea of hay-making on the top field. But he no longer has a reliable baler so has to call on another neighbour to make the hay.

Unfortunately, farms are becoming fewer, larger and more specialised. So the network that used to link the smallish farms round here, with each helping the other, is beginning to fall apart.

Serious contractors wouldn't turn out to cope with a little patch like ours. But in the middle of July, I heard the farmer who usually makes our hay working in our neighbour's field, just down the lane. She has two beautiful flat meadows, full of orchids, and our haymaking generally runs on straight after hers. Hector heard the tractors too and made it clear that he wanted to visit them.

So I carted him down the hill (he's 18-months-old but hasn't much interest in walking) and we sat on a hay bale in a corner of the field, enveloped in the sweet, light, dry smell that you only get from freshly-made hay. He was entranced. The green John Deere tractor towed a machine that tossed the hay and laid it out in neat rows. The blue New Holland followed with the baler. Small, old-style bales about four feet across shot out at regular intervals from the back of the baler, tied round twice with orange twine.

Round and round went the tractors and each time they passed our corner, the tractor drivers waved to Hector. He, with a curiously imperial gesture, raised his left arm each time in greeting. It was the most enchanting, tranquil afternoon I've had all summer.

"Cheap entertainment," said the owner of the John Deere, as he squeezed his tractor through the field gate at the end of the afternoon. But he never came to make the hay in our top field. A little later I learned he'd been forced to sell up. He's lost his baler, which has gone to Wincanton and we've lost a critical piece of the hay-making jigsaw.

Belfast Telegraph

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