Hay times they are a changin'

David Coates on his grey Ferguson tractor

David Coates on his grey Ferguson tractor

First published in Dales Life
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ONE of the many parts of Dales farming life to have changed almost beyond recognition in the matter of only a generation or two is hay time.

I'm probably a bit late to even mention this period in the agricultural calendar this year, as we had a period of great weather early in the summer in which farmers were able to get a lot of their winter feed in, though much of it would be silage these days.

But I recall that on my family's Dales farm, while we always aimed to get hay time finished so we could go and have a day out just down the road at Kilnsey Show, which falls at the end of August or beginning of September, often we were still gathering in the hay after that, probably dodging the early autumn showers as we did so.

So that's the excuse for my timing as I turn to some family history that was reawakened for me by two articles which appeared in the Craven Herald recently - Bill Mitchell's recollections on this very page about the past annual influx of Irish labourers to gather hay, and Coniston Cold farmer David Coates giving his veteran Ferguson tractor a rare run out to mow some grass.

Both my parents remembered the Irishmen who used to arrive with their finely honed scythes to work on Dales farms in the summer, a tradition which seems to have at least partly fallen victim to the Second World War.

My mother said her father refused to take any more of them on because he was so appalled by Ireland's refusal to join in the struggle against Hitler, though whether his act of principle discomfited the Irish authorities has not been recorded.

My father had slightly different story; the Irishmen, whether fearing German bombs or British conscription, stopped coming and were replaced by another source of labour - prisoners of war, who used to be brought to his father's farm and then left to their work.

There is a certain amount of national stereotyping in my father's recollection of who were the most willing workers, though perhaps with a bit of a twist. He felt slightly sorry for the southern Italians, transplanted from their Mediterranean home climate to the somewhat chillier climes of the Dales, but he took a certain amount of mischievous pleasure in recounting how at the slightest sign of rain they would be found sheltering in a barn rather than doing their allotted tasks.

The Germans were made of sterner stuff, but the hardest and most efficient worker by far, my father said, was another Italian, but from the north of the country. His attitude was entirely different to his southern compatriots, for whom he had little regard - a tale of one country, two nations, perhaps?

An even bigger change in farming practice was to come fairly shortly after the war - the emergence of the tractor.

This was a blessing so far as my father was concerned, by now a young man starting out on a farming career.

As a small boy he had to look after the big horses who provided the non-human muscle for such tasks as mowing meadows. Unfortunately - and fans of all things equestrian should look away now - my father formed a considerable dislike of the large creatures, which apparently used to bully him by pushing him around and standing on his feet with their great hooves, particularly when he tried to rouse them early on a summer morning.

So the advent of the tractor, to his mind a much more reliable and certainly less temperamental source of help, was a great boon, and his particular favourite was a grey Ferguson machine, not unlike the one used by the aforementioned Mr Coates and featured in a YouTube video.

At this point my own memories kick in, not because I was around when the "Fergie" first appeared, but because it was still with us decades later.

In fact the little grey tractor stayed with my father for the rest of his time in farming, though it had gone into a cosy 'retirement', being kept in a barn and only coming out at hay time, when it provided occasional backup for larger and more modern machines.

The Fergie finally found a new home when my father retired and someone, I believe with an interest in collecting them, took the little machine away from its former, grateful owner.

By then our hay timing days were done - though before they ended we witnessed yet another change in farm practice.

Even though the days of horses, haystacks and pitchforks were over, with tractors to pull mowing machines, acrobats and balers, hay time on our farm meant plenty of physical labour, chucking bales onto an old wooden cart before chucking them off again and into one of those traditional stone barns.

We graduated towards the end to big bales of silage, wrapped in plastic and carried on large spikes at the back of tractors.

But the last hay field we ever cleared, in the late 1990s, provided a vision of a new world.

Time was pressing, so some neighbouring farmers who also did contracting work were booked to complete the job after we mowed the field and possibly turned the grass a couple of times. Contractors get very busy and work long hours during hay time, so it was actually dark when they arrived that summer evening.

But it didn't matter. They had plenty of electric light on their three machines, all of which would have dwarfed the grey Fergie had it not been snugly stashed in its barn. One of them nonchalantly pressed a few buttons on the side of his behemoth, and off they went . It was soon over, as my father and I just watched and wondered at all those hours of toil in the hayfield.

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