Mown Stalks Exhale

Cut grass lies frail / Brief is the breath / Mown stalks exhale / Long, long the death / It dies in the white hours / Of young-leafed June…(From Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Cut Grass’)

The prolonged spell of good weather in the wake of midsummer is the trigger for a wave of farming activity. Next door neighbours but one run a contracting business from their farm over the ridge, which might explain why they were sorting their own patch first this past weekend. We witnessed them out and about with their kit cutting, spreading, rowing, baling, and carrying off  grass as silage. Just prior to that the family also managed to have their flock of sheep shorn and muckspread some of those newly mown fields as well.

On Monday morning Southridge’s workhorse red tractor cut the big meadow that borders two sides of us here at the corner house. First the headlands (field boundaries) then, with turning room established, it steadily mowed the rest on a series of returning diagonals. Tuesday morning their contractor arrived in his big John Deere tractor drawing a combo tedder and rake. This machine is an unfolding wide winged setup of wheeling metal tines, drawn over the wilting sward to wuffle (spread dry) then windrow (line up) the cut grass.

The afternoon saw our man return with a round baler to draw and bind the drying grass into airtight rolls, not too loose and not too tight, before ejecting them. Southridge’s red tractor then spiked up each bale unto a flat bed trailer pulled by their other tractor that in turn hauled them off for stacking in the farmyard barn.Weather, the lie of the land dictate and ease of storage means that silage is favoured over hay in these parts as winter fodder for sheep and cattle.

I think the workers may have taken a break (along with the rest of the nation) to watch the Germany v England match live from Wembley stadium at 5pm, but they were back to finish the whole job before the light finally faded. Seeing the black & white team strips against the pristine Wembley turf put me in mind of the intermingling gulls and corvids on that far neighbours new mown fields, co-existing to feast on a bonus of worms and insects newly exposed to light.

Back here on the big meadow our resident avian families took advantage of fallen seed and vulnerable worms too, albeit on a far less industrial scale. Wheatears spotted atop the curving dry stonewall before dropping in to forage. These welcome summer migrants from Africa normally keep their distance from habitation but clearly could not resist this temptation to come in by. I was afforded a sight of their handsome form and tell tale white rump. The bird’s original common name was ‘whitearse’ but Victorian sensibility put a stop to that.

I also hope that the Curlews who nest in the meadow have had their chicks hatched and fledged by now. These iconic birds return from the coast each spring to this traditional breeding spot so I can only assume they have. Nationally the picture looks bleak as the birds summer quarters away from the coastal winter coasts and estuaries are increasingly confined to remote upland hill country. The curlew breeding population has halved over the last 25 years. This distinctive wader, with its haunting liquid call, is celebrated by local Allendale brewery as one of its many fine bottled ales while the Northumberland National Park (in which the field sits) features the curlew as its logo. 

There is one bird perhaps above all others that says ‘summer in the country’ and that for me has to be the skylark. This year their presence has been more marked than usual, which is heartening. We suspect them of nesting somewhere on the ground within our four acres of rough grazing, as I’ve mentioned before, which makes us happy as skylarks are an endangered red list species. When out on the bike I’ve flushed them from wayside cover. How wonderful it is to hear the cock bird singing his heart out as he rises high above to hold as a vibrating fixed speck in a cloudless blue sky. Truly, a sublime enchantment.  

Footnote: Clocked our neighbour going over the big field with his baler. The contractor’s wide winged machinery not able to deal with more uneven ground in non regular shaped fields. A closer shave needed. The seven round bales he managed to gather will join the rest to dry for a week before wrapping and storage. Alas, recent last couple of days rain will slow that process down.

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