Thursday, 11 June 2015

Ten men went to mow

Hay-time will soon be upon us.

At Paxton Pits Nature Reserve we always plan for as late a cut as we can in order to allow most of the flowers set seed. If we leave it too late, the hay turns brown and loses all of its food value. It's a tricky balancing act.
Chris Alderson, Jim Stevenson,
Alex Stevenson and Arnold Alderson
Ivelet 1956

Hay was always a vital crop to keep livestock fed in winter. In my childhood, I often walked with my grandmother through the buttercups in Swaledale, which is limestone country. Each hay-meadow had a name and was surrounded by a dry-stone wall. Every field contained a stone cow-byre with a midden of manure outside it.

A network of narrow footpaths led through all of the fields, but woe betide anyone who took a detour through the flowers. Many a wandering townie has had his day ruined by an encounter with an angry Dalesman yelling words that children should never hear and that most adults would need a translator to understand, all because he wandered off the straight-and-narrow and flattened the hay.

"Git thesel owt o't fog and back on't path" would be a polite request in Dale-speak. (Fog means any grass but "Yorkshire Fog" is a particular species of grass, Holcus lanatus.)

Good drying weather is essential for hay-making, so it's important not to cut the crop if it is going to rain. Ideally you need three dry days but four would be better. We used to cut the hay with a horse-drawn cutting bar but by the end of the 1950's most farmers had little grey "Fergies", blue Ford tractors or orange-red Fordson Majors. Because the hay was so valuable, every awkward corner and every steep slope was cut either using a scythe or a two-wheeled Allen mower.

Once cut, the hay needs to be turned repeatedly to dry it out. We used wooden hay-rakes and pitch forks to turn the hay and that required a lot of people. I remember hay-making in a field called "Robin" with perhaps a dozen other folks that included "Mosser" Alderson, his wife, two sons, a couple of neighbours and several elderly relatives from "up-dale" as well as a us little'uns. On bigger farms they would hire in a team of roving "hay-time-men" who were mostly Irish.

Ferguson tractor
When the hay had been turned a few times most of the seed had fallen out and that's why a good hay meadow gets progressively more rich in wild flowers over time.

The finished hay was pitchforked onto a horse-drawn sled. My job as a three year-old was just to sit on the horse, but when I was five I drove the tractor instead. Of course I ciould not reach the pedals but I sat at the steering wheel and worked the hand throttle. We chugged around the field very slowly in low gear as the hay was piled high on the sled and then we led it to the byre where it was pitched into the hay-loft above the cattle stalls where the short-horn cows would spend the winter.

The farm's sheep were kept on the high pasture and the moors while the cattle that were not being milked were on open pastures or commons. Only the ten or twelve milk-cows were kept near to home, but not on the best hay fields.

Today at Paxton Pits we have two proper hay meadows that I call the Home Meadow and the Lower Meadow near to the visitor's centre. We also have a long, narrow riverside field called "The Great Meadow" where we don't cut hay. They are all quite new but we want to make them as good as any historic meadow. How do we do that?
Yellow rattle. When the seed-pods rattle, it's hay time.
It is possible to simply plant a meadow. In Lincolnshire a lot of meadows have been created by drilling rows of local wild flower seeds into the grass sward. The result looks like a stripy, corduroy cloth with narrow yellow rows of cowslips, buttercups and yellow rattle. Over time the stripes merge and you have what looks like an ancient meadow.

Our two home meadows were created as part of the restoration of the quarry that created Rudd Pit and Cloudy Pit. Grass was sown, but most of the other plants came in on their own. Some, such as yellow rattle and meadow cranesbill, had a little help. When a cable was laid under the meadow a few more plants arrived in the bare soil, including knapweed. You could say that we just managed our fields as though they were already proper hay-meadows, and that's what they became.
A restored baler.
Every year, the management is the same. We let the flowers grow until early July and then we make hay using our tractors to mow, turn and bale the crop. Most of the seed falls out during this process, but there is always some left in the hay. The hay-bales are stored in our barn ready to feed our highland cattle in winter.

We leave a margin of several meters around the hay-cut and keep a few of the best floral bits just for looking at and for the insects that we have just made homeless. Those margins show up all year round because that is where the coarser grasses and the late flowering plants survive.

Grasses are specially adapted to being grazed and so they quickly bounce back after the hay is cut. If we do not have a drought, after only a few weeks we could take a second crop of hay or silage but we don't. Instead we borrow about ten gentle, friendly cows and calves from a neighbour. The cattle munch their way through the regrowth and the marginal coarse bits. The are picky-eaters so that the resulting sward is patchy. They also make fabulous "meadow muffins" that attract invertebrates. Badgers come and turn the cow-pats over to find worms.
Loading hay bales at Paxton Pits.
If we get a wet winter, the lower meadow becomes quite boggy. I have seen quite a selection of waders and water birds there over the years, including snipe, woodcock and redshanks. The drier top meadow often attracts fieldfares and redwings that feed on worms after all the berries have gone from the hedgerows.

Before Christmas, the cattle have run out of food and so the farmer takes them home. Unfortunately, they don't eat everything and so we have to take out invading willows and cut back the edges in places where we expect orchids in spring. Even in March we should see a few flowers popping up.

The Great Meadow is managed as a wet meadow, the difference being that we graze it lightly in summer and remove the cattle before the winter floods. This is typically how flood-meadows are managed, but we are a bit disappointed in our progress so far. The meadow is just too dry and we are not seeing a lot of wildflowers except in the ditches.

The Great Meadow was never part of the quarry but it was ploughed for growing peas until the 1990s so the soil has no "memory" or wildflower seed bank. We tried gathering seed from our older meadow and scattered it on a lowish bit of the Great meadow near our wind pump. A spotted orchid appeared and some yellow rattle, so it did work, at least a bit.

This week we were checking on another field that we call Pumphouse Meadow, a mile north of the Reserve in the quarry. That's where our cows go in winter. By March they need a bit of feeding so we take them some of our hay which they absolutely love. They only have to hear a vehicle coming before they stampeded along the fence to be first in line. We tend to feed them along the fence because the access is good and we can check out the cows without getting a swipe from a stray horn.
What we noticed was that we now have a very nice buttercup meadow along the fence due to the seeds falling out of the hay. I'm guessing that this is the way we will seed the Great Meadow too.