Quietly Disappearing From Our Countryside?

A familiar sight for many has been quietly disappearing from the countryside right before our eyes; within a generation it may be consigned to history…the humble small bale.

When did you last see them dotted in reassuring lines across a field waiting for collection locally?  Or the smiling faces being bounced along, sitting  on hay trailers in the sunshine?

Maybe you have fond memories of small communities coming together to help get the hay in?  Throwing bales up to waiting hands ready to stack on trailers; being sat on top of the bales surrounded by the reassuring sweet smell; offloading in gentle clouds of dust in the barn with the satisfaction of the growing hay stack preparing for winter, but how long will it continue?

We speak to Quantock farmer and Friends of the Quantocks committee member Jeremy Scott-Bolton in what he fears may be his last year ‘on the hay’ to get an insight into the farmers experience of being ‘on the hay’.

“The constant weather checking starts as the time approaches; of course before we had technology to assist, this might have been done purely on the farmer’s own forecasting, but now I check the weather app, probably a hundred times a day as I know the grass is ready.  

Has the forecast changed?  I speak to farming friends about it, when they are planning to go?  It becomes all-consuming, and then you smell it in the breeze, someone has started, and the tension goes up a notch as you grapple with when is the right time to go. 

Timing is critical, it means success or failure; so much hinges on the weather, sometimes for as little as a few days or even hours.  

Every time I wake in the night I check the weather, It takes over my life, it is like a drug.  Then you make the decision to cut, you are going for it, you are committed.  

Once we’ve started I don’t eat, I lose half a stone in a week and I constantly check the weather app in any moment I can spare a hand to do so.

I am the only one in my family who enjoys making hay and it all stems back to a time as a young child when my father had injured himself and could not do it.  We had a fruit farm; mainly apples and some Hereford cattle with about 20 acres for hay.  My father couldn’t do it himself and I had never done anything like it before but we needed to get the hay in for the cattle for the winter.  My father had to put everything on the right settings for me and off I would go under his watchful gaze.  

I had to do the mowing, the turning and then the baling, learning as I went, how to tell it was ready to bale, sorting the twine when I realised half the bales were not tied and so much more.  To this day it one of the proudest things I have ever done; I’m not a mechanic or a tractor man and it was such a huge achievement at such a young age and I was hooked.

I moved away when I was older but when I came back home, I loved it.

One year I had all the hay baled and had the whole of the next day to bring the bales in, it had gone well.  After returning from the pub (an important part of haymaking) I checked the weather, it has had changed, there was rain forecast for 9am the following day.  I couldn’t sleep, I was up at 3am, I’d messaged my nephew Will for help, the whole family was helping and we got the last bales in just before the first drop of rain fell.  

The achievement is like no other.

Small bale haymaking is a real family and friends affair with brother driving the baler, father’s years of experience in timing, my mother bringing cold drinks and friends and their children helping bring in the bales when bad weather is looming.  

My daughter Clemmie is only 10 and I hope she will be able to remember the ‘old fashioned’ way of making hay.”

As I joined Jeremy he was turning the hay in the field, the sun was shining, the dust was starting to rise as the hay was turned, butterflies danced around with the beautiful sweet smell of organic wildflower meadow hay surrounding us.  The thought that this could be Jeremy’s last year doing this was so sad, yet every year fewer and fewer farmers will continue with small bales as the machinery breaks down and it is replaced with larger alternatives and more and more wildflower meadows are lost too.  

Are the days of the humble small bale numbered?