Rural: Hay - take a load of this and remember summer

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The Independent Online
No farmyard smell more powerfully evokes memories of summer than that of well-made hay. Fragrant and sweet, the scent seems to embody the heat that prevailed when the grass was cut, and the sleepy atmosphere of the days when it cooked under the blaze of the July sun.

Our yard is full of hay now, because we recently imported a load of bales to supplement our dwindling stocks. The consignment just finished was moderate to poor, the product of unsettled weather last July. Having cut the grass and watched it lie on the field for days, never quite drying out, the farmer had to bale it when he got the chance, before more rain fell. In truth it was not quite ready - but it was a case of then or never.

Hastily summoned, we drove out to collect our load from a field on the very edge of the Cotswold plateau. The wind was howling in from the west, and as we looked out over the plain, we could see another storm rushing in up the Bristol Channel.

It was therefore all hands to the bales - and a fearful weight they were. A good, dry bale weighs 40lb or 50lb. These were more like 75lb - a nightmare to hoist above one's head - and the effort reminded me of an occasion, years ago, when we were unloading from a high-piled trailer. I was standing on the ground and looking the other way when Alan, the fellow up top, dropped a bale without warning, end-on on to my head.

The impact almost knocked me out. I felt my neck crunch down with the sudden weight, and for several seconds I was unsteady on my feet. What brought me round was rage, when I heard Alan exclaim, with interest rather than sympathy, "Cor, look - made 'im bloody stagger."

Last year, when we got the damp hay home, we did not dare stack the bales at once, for fear they would combust spontaneously. So we stood them all on end, with air between each one and its neighbours, and left them like that for three weeks.

The result was that they kept all right, and turned out reasonably palatable. Yet our new supply is markedly superior, not only in smell but also in texture. It came from a farm down the valley, where two brothers regularly make excellent hay from their fields on what can only be called the toes of the Cotswolds - the final low humps, beyond the main escarpment, where the hills run down to the Severn plain.

I do not suppose the weather there is much better or worse than higher up, but the brothers, who are also builders, watch it cannily, dashing out in fine intervals between other jobs to do whatever is needed - cut, scatter, row-up, turn and bale. Moreover, they have large, airy barns, which are ideal for storage.

Their 1997 crop seems particularly good. It is meadow hay - a mixture of softish grasses and wild flowers - rather than specially-grown rye grass, which is harder, and favoured by racehorse trainers because it contains less dust. An agreeable, biscuity light brown in colour, it is clearly much more delicious than the old. Sheep and horses are whacking into it, and our alpacas by no means turn up their delicate noses at it, clearly implying that it is better stuff than one gets on the Chilean altiplano.

Nor is the value of the bale-stack to be measured in nutritional terms only. The chickens find it highly acceptable as a nesting site, and small children love mountaineering on it in search of eggs. Rosie, our fluffiest cat, spends hours sitting high up, lost in dreams of mice - so many hours, in fact, that when eventually she comes indoors, she too smells deliciously of hay. Humans, also, have been known to take root out there while they think things over.

We tend to take hay for granted, and suppose that all farmers have made it since time immemorial. I therefore find it curious to reflect that in southern Oman, with its baking climate, nobody had thought of trying to preserve fodder until the Special Air Service showed farmers how to do it during the campaigns of the Seventies. For centuries the locals had killed bull calves in infancy, knowing that after the monsoon rains they would have nothing to feed them on. The innovation revolutionised agriculture in Dhofar, and remains one of the SAS's lasting memorials in the area.

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