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The complicated business of saving the hay

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

There’s nothing like the smell of new mown hay.
It drives fear to the heart of every countryman upon whom the lot of carting bales has fallen.
To the uninitiated, those who spend the best portion of their lives browsing the internet or watching endless reruns of television soap operas, or moving mindlessly from pub to pub, from tavern to hotel bar, from hidden shebeen to private drinking den, those hard working country folk throwing bales of sweet smelling hay onto rickety trailers and drawing them away to be stored in antiquated, stone-built barns with rusting tin roofs are living the real life.
They know nothing of the challenges. First, the grass must be persuaded to grow. ‘A wet and windy May fills the barns full of hay,’ says the old adage. Tell that to the farmer who’s livelihood depends on having his barns filled, especially when there’s barely a snip of grass and June looming, as was the case this year. A burst of sunshine saved the day and, while the crop has not been all we might wish for, there’s probably enough in it if the coming winter is late and next spring more kindly than the last.
When the field bears enough to be shorn, the weather must be closely watched and the mower booked. For 300 days of the year there are mowers standing idle in every corner of the county, then everybody with a field wants them all at once and there aren’t enough to go around.
There are simple rules to be followed in this regard. First, it is essential that a fat trout or some other suitable bribe be delivered to the door of the man with the mower before the end of April, who will then be primed to fit the provider into his hectic schedule when the day comes.
The second rule is this; cut when the grass is dry, never after rain and never, ever in the rain. This narrows the window of opportunity somewhat, but is worth all the effort and trout/other bribes that it takes. The crop will dry far better standing with the wind blowing through it than it ever will laying in the wet with that same wind blowing over it. Once grass is cut it starts to deteriorate, and the longer it stays wet the more the hay-turner must be used. Every time the crop is turned the machine knocks it about and devalues it further. How much better to cut dry!
Three days of sunshine will save most crops. Three days, however, is a tall order in this part of the world. Not so this year. Three days of recent heatwave would nearly serve to dry the ocean, never mind the hay.
But that is only the beginning. When the baler arrives to crunch the grass into rectangular bales, it sends a cloud of aromatic dust into the air that carries miles upon the breeze and draws, by whatever means I cannot say, every horsefly between here and the next hayfield to the scene.
They arrive as hungry, sharp-toothed migrants with an appetite for blood, and might ordinarily glut themselves with that of cattle, sheep or deer, none of which are permitted, for obvious reasons, to wander in among the harvest. There, the only blood on offer belongs to those conscripted and charged with the multiple tasks of fetching, throwing, stacking and packing, towing, unpacking and restacking.
Strands of dried grass fall continually over the heads and backs of the workers, and in among them are horseflies by the score, each armed with a miniature pair of skin-cutting shears at the mouth end and a resolute, single-minded determination to obtain that feed of blood essential if their eggs are to successfully hatch.
The hay gatherers have learned to work together and help each other out. Those sharp shouts and heavy slaps delivered among them are not a sign of ‘having fun’, as the casual observer might imagine, but are an effort to save each other from the painful wounds inflicted by those hungry insect hordes.
There are other hazards. Dehydration and heatstroke can be averted with the carefully measured consumption of iced cider. If the day should be one of abnormal warmth careful measurement might be cast aside, although the greatest of efforts should be made to avoid this development, or half the crop will be left to be ‘finished tomorrow’, in the rain, with the festive element of harvesting gone.
We’ve said nothing of the oven-like temperatures within the barn, the mysterious rash that appears on arms and legs, the straw that works its way beneath the fingernail, and so many other occupational hazards that make harvest time so memorable.
Yet we can still say most emphatically, there’s nothing like the smell of new mown hay.