Landscape treasure with history of toil

Environment Editor Tony Henderson on the heyday of a landscape gem which is inching its way back.

Environment Editor Tony Henderson on the heyday of a landscape gem which is inching its way back.

Coming across a traditional upland hay meadow in the North-East is rather like finding a living museum in the countryside.

In an otherwise largely uniform green backdrop, these meadows with more than 100 different species of flowers and grasses are a cluster of colour.

In the days before the intensification of farming, which saw 97% of these meadows lost in the last 60 years, much of the region would have been a more colourful place.

Fresh from months interviewing old-time farmers in the North Pennines, where 40% of Britain's upland hay meadows are to be found, Neil Diment agrees.

"It was a different world," he says.

The so-scarce hay meadows are now a truly special feature of the North-East.

"If you ask people to name a fragile and endangered habitat, they would probably say the rainforests or coral reefs," says Neil.

A better reply, he ventures, would be the upland meadows, where good examples have around 30 species of plants in a square metre. In fact, there are a mere 11 square kilometres of upland hay meadows left in the UK, and the North-East has more than half of that total.

Some are so valuable that they carry the European designation of Special Area of Conservation.

And from now, through the next few weeks, there will be a brief chance to enjoy one of the most spectacular, if fleeting, features of the North-East landscape.

In the old days the meadows were fertilised only with animal manure, which releases nutrients slowly, allowing a wide variety of plants to grow. The hay was cut to feed livestock over the winter, but only after the plants had set the seed which started the whole natural process over again.

Today, those meadows which have survived in the region, often in awkward nooks and crannies, are to be found in Allendale, South Tynedale, Teesdale, Weardale and Northumberland National Park.

It is a measure of their scarcity that only one of Northumberland Wildlife Trust's 60 nature reserves is a hay meadow - at Riding Mill.

The Domesday Book recorded that eight out of 10 settlements had hay meadows, but the mechanisation of farming from the Second World War, the use of fertilisers, herbicides, and fast-growing rye grass for silage meant that native grasses and wild flowers could not compete.

"The decline of hay meadows has been horrific," says Neil, who lives in Barnard Castle, from where he runs his Heritage Interpretation Services consultancy.

He set up the consultancy four years ago after leaving his job as head of interpretation, education and design at Northumberland National Park.

Neil has been working on a study for the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership's Hay Time project, which seeks to restore traditional upland meadows.

And Neil's research has certainly confirmed the old adage of make hay while the sun shines, which has become part of the English language.

Now it has a broad application to cover any situation which involves making the most of things while the going is good.

But when so much depended on a good hay harvest to feed the animals over the winter, sunshine was desperately important.

Neil talked to veteran, mostly retired North Pennines farmers who worked in the pre-mechanisation days from the 1930s to the 1950s.

"It was fascinating, but the impression was that hay making was bloody hard work," he says.

The farmers would often be up at 4am to start cutting before the heat of the day got to the horses which pulled the mower bar, and also to use every ray of sunshine to dry the strewn grasses and flowers.

"What really hit me was how weather-dependent the whole thing was," says Neil.

"If they didn't get enough hay in for the winter it could mean having to sell animals. They would gather every last stalk because, as they said, a handful of hay could make the difference as to whether an animal survived or not.

"The sun was essential because the hay had to be dried, otherwise it would rot and decompose."

The cut material had to be turned and turned as part of the drying process. It was gathered into little piles, or rucks, and then bigger structures, called pikes, which were built so that any rain ran off, and were a temporary measure until the hay could be stored in a barn or in a stack, often with a roof of thatched reeds.

Rucks and pikes are part of a hay making vocabulary which has virtually disappeared, as have skills like traditional hay rake making.

The last commercial hay rake makers in the country are John Rudd and Sons in their 17th Century workshop at Dufton in Cumbria.

One of the spin-offs from Neil's work is that a wealth of information and advice can be passed on to the next generation of haymakers as meadows are restored.

Haymaking has become part of a warm, romantic and nostalgic image of a lost rural idyll.

But Neil says: "It was a real craft. But it was also tough work, and there were no summer holidays, and no time for anything else.

"The farmers said that when the hay was in, they were just pleased it was over. It was a relief that there was food in the bank for the animals over the winter.

"It was also a time when everybody chipped in and helped each other."

As well as providing background material for the Hay Time project, Neil's findings will be archived at Beamish Museum in County Durham and will be part of a touring exhibition.

"I feel that it has recognised all the hard work over the years by these farming families," says Neil.

Hay Time runs for four summers, funded by the Tubney Trust, Defra and Natural England.

It takes green hay from good meadows and spreads it and its seeds on land which soil tests have shown is a suitable case for treatment.

Project officer John O'Reilly says: "Upland hay meadows have survived in the North Pennines because it is a marginal farming area, and there was not as much incentive to improve the land as there was in the lowlands."

"Most fields now have very few flowers, whereas several decades ago the majority would have been full of flowers," says John.

"We are not saying we are going to restore hay meadows on every farm, but we are going to increase the number of meadows."

* Neil would like to hear from anyone with hay making memories, implements or photographs. Telephone: (01388) 528801.

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