Robin, who is, more or less, with us just now (“more or less” because he occasionally shoots off for short stays with other people, like film-star Jake, or Max and Luke in Dufftown: I wouldn’t like to suggest he’s in any way “not all there”), has shown great understanding about the plight of the hay gaffer (that’s me). I (and I presume everyone else) have always noticed how grumpy I get at hay-time, and Robin was the one who outlined the reasons why.
At best, haymaking is a great communal activity: the weather’s warm, the sun is shining, the dried grass fragrant, the combination of sweat and hay-dust makes your entire body itch (which sounds unpleasant, but it can also stimulate many other reactions – hence subsidiary associations of expressions like “making hay”, “hay fever”, etc); and, particularly if you’re one of the boys, you have all the joy of a pitch-fork to play with. All this fun-and-frolics doesn’t improve the mood of the gaffer, but at least he knows that the job is getting done quicker than he could do it himself, and that is of the essence.
The gaffer’s job is thus a lonely one and nerve-wracking to boot: a constant eye on the weather, which has been pretty consistently appalling so far this year, constant assessment of how far a particular batch of grass has “cured”, of how safe it’ll be stored out in the field, of whether it’s ready to go in under cover to its winter home, because if it’s not ready for its final storing there’s the danger it’ll heat and then go mouldy.
What was the “traditional” method of haymaking from the ‘sixties on, and still is to some extent nowadays, was the mechanised business of cutting, turning whenever the weather was good, and finally baling up in “small bales” which were manually stacked and/or shifted by trailer to the barn – a backbreaking job, considering the weight of a 36 x 18 x 14-inch bale, and not always producing the best results. The new “big bales”, particularly the round ones, can only be dealt with mechanically, and because they’re so tightly bound they make a product that’s safe from the moment it’s done, ie. it can be safely left out in the field for a surprisingly long time, well into the winter. But you have to be a fair judge of the condition of the grass prior to baling, or you’ll still finish up with half a ton of mould. Horsey people seem to have the resources to pay for “hylage”, which is a sort of combination of really old-fashioned half-cured, half-fermented grass-hay and the new hi-tech product, ie. the whole thing is clingfilm-wrapped in masses and masses of plastic, and it, naturally, is fantastic. Silage, which is what most people in these parts make, is also made in plastic-wrapped bales since some government decree that old-fashioned silage pits gave off too much effluent. Now, instead of the wake of dead trees and rank nettles where the effluent used to run off, you have vast mounds of used and useless black plastic which the farmers have to pay to have disposed of and which it’s illegal to burn (not that that puts all our chaps off: some have the nous to wait for cloudy weather when satellite surveillance is not at its best).
Hay-time: it’s nothing but a big worry, but everything else notwithstanding, this year has been quite good fun, because our tiny requirement has been worked on by most of the family, so Rachel and I can grouch and the rest can cavort, and between us we’ve hand-made a reasonable little pile. I should explain that sixty-odd guinea-pigs can get through a frightening amount of hay in a winter, especially if they’re not getting much other food, and this is what all the effort is for.
Over the years I’ve tried to work back towards an old-traditional method of haymaking, which involves only manual processing: field-curing on “quoils” and then storing in an outdoor stack, but that’s really highly-skilled stuff, and so far beyond me. I once had detailed instructions for this in my grandfather’s Cyclopaedia of Modern Agriculture – possibly to this day the only major work on agriculture and horticulture that has a distinctively Scottish slant – but my good brother unaccountably sold the set, and I’ve only been able to garner odd volumes since then: “Hay” to – I don’t know – “Kohl Rabi” isn’t among them (though I do have the revelatory – and, nowadays, revolutionary – one about raising potatoes from seed).
My first haymaking must have been near Bathgate in 1974, under the aegis of Jock Paton, ex of Wigtownshire, whose name still recalls for me the shock of disbelief at being expected to work through a half-dozen rolling fields carrying these leaden lumps of dead grass held in bales by string especially designed to torture the hands, blister and lacerate, and then after all the lugging have to heave them up onto a flatbed trailer that was chest-high when empty. Jock ran down into town to purchase a couple of pitchforks, so painful were our loading-efforts to watch, so then we had the joy of trying to pitch the monsters up to level six with implements we’d only ever seen used by Nazis to winkle out some filmstar fugitive from a farm cart. The following year, in Dumfriesshire, Drew Lammie’s skill at weather-prediction allowed him (and his hapless crew, of which I was a member) to cut, dry, bale and store all twelve hundred bales in one single frantic effort over six days of hot weather. Next year, when we had goats, I scythed nearly seventy bales-worth of hay and brought them home for baling off a hillside half a mile away – in a wheelbarrow…. I look back and wonder if this could possibly have been the same me that accomplished these feats. I think I must be an impostor now, replaced for the real article long ago during some night of lethal drunkenness, and only by sheer luck has no-one noticed, or has forgotten what the original looked like.
I’ve just remembered: it doggedly states “living literature” above this blog. Well sorry, that also is an imposture: too much living to leave time for any literature.