On Friday we made hay, while the sun shone. It was our first time making our own hay, having rented a series of fields not far from the visitor centre, and a couple of agricultural buildings for storage. It’s a rather stressful business, being – like so many agricultural activities – highly dependent on the weather. The hay was cut on the previous Monday, and needed at least four days without rain in order to dry sufficiently. Against all the odds (this is England in July, after all, and Wimbledon season) the rain held off, and on the fifth day we did bale.
The trick then is to get all the bales into storage before it rains, and we were looking at potentially 3000 bales. Thanks to some marvellous organisation by Caroline, our Grazing Officer, we had a brilliant turn-out of staff and volunteers, who set about the task of manhandling the bales into the two storage sheds as they arrived from the fields.
It was desperately unpleasant work, on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far. It made me think of a scene from one of my favourite books, T H White’s ‘The Once and Future King‘ (if you haven’t read it, give it a go, and don’t be put off by Disney’s interpretation of the first part, The Sword in the Stone). White describes medieval hay making on a similarly hot July day, and this passage in particular sprang to mind:
“For the hay was an element to them, like sea or air, in which they bathed and plunged themselves and which they even breathed in. The seeds and small scraps stuck in their hair, their mouths, their nostrils, and worked, tickling, inside their clothes.”
Out in the fields, our contractors carried out the baling, and the bales were loaded onto trailers to be transported back to the yard. Here, they were off-loaded (thrown, actually – fortunately bales are pretty tough) and carried by hand into the buildings, where someone would stack them, climbing around on the pile as it grew towards the rafters. I had a few sessions as stacker, and again was reminded of T H White:
“Sir Ector scrambled about on top, getting in the way of his assistants, who did the real work, and stamping and perspiring and scratching about with his fork and trying to make the rick grow straight and shouting that it would all fall down as soon as the west winds came.”
Obviously the wind wouldn’t be an issue, but there was certainly plenty of perspiring. The temperature inside the buildings soared as the day went on, and the air was thick with hay dust. Those outside didn’t have a much better time as the sun continued to beat down. Volunteers came and went throughout the day, but we always had sufficient hands to keep up the pace, aided by on-site catering (thanks to Pat and Ros).
Scary tales had circulated earlier in the day of baling carrying on until midnight, but luckily we made good progress and the final ‘half-crown’ bale was added to the big stack in the cow barn at around half-past eight. And then, right on cue, it started to rain.
All in all, a very successful exercise, and our sincere thanks go out to all the staff, contractors and volunteers who made it possible, including the Conservation Volunteers who had the unpleasant task of clearing out the sheds in the first place.
This is a major step forward for our grazing programme, and will hopefully be the first of many fruitful hay days.