The Isle of Whithorn Agricultural History

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Baling Hay near the Isle of Whithorn
The Isle of Whithorn

The Isle of Whithorn

A Farmer's Diary

As has been already mentioned, life on the farms has changed dramatically and if we compare a farmers diary of 1950’s with today we certainly note big differences.

In times past, the first months of the year were spent doing the cold, back-breaking work of hand shawing (shedding) turnips. These would feed the animals along with hay, which had to be given in forkfuls or more recently as small bales.

Nowadays, the main feed is silage, either from a pit or made in big bales, but always distributed by a modern, heated tractor and loader. This same machine deals with the big bales of hay and straw that are also fed. The silage itself used to be hand graped (forked) out, but now all the farms have feeder wagons, many of them very sophisticated with computerised weighing facilities so that a complex diet (especially for the dairy cattle) can be prepared and distributed.

The fields to be cropped or reseeded still have to be ploughed but now a big tractor and often a reversible 3- or 4-furrow plough replace the old horse and single furrow implement. Unfortunately however, the stones turned up by the plough still have to be lifted by hand. This is a tiresome job, and in these days of small labour forces often the farm families have to be cajoled into action. (This is one of the few jobs where children can help, as with big machines and few people around, farms can be dangerous places - they are certainly not playgrounds).

May and June brings the first cut of silage, and even this has progressed from the early days when with a small chopper or forage wagon it took at least a week to ten days to make - sometimes much longer if the weather was not on your side. Now, it is lifted with a self-propelled chopper and transported in large trailers, and so 80 to 100 acres can be cleared in a day. Before all this, May was a busy month on the farms when the corn was sown (prior to the mid 1940’s this was done with a sowing sheet or a “fiddle”). The turnips were also sown by the third week in May, and two or three weeks later they were ready for hoeing.

Hay is still made, but not nearly as much. In the old system the grass would be cut by a reaper, turned by hand forks and made into rucks (small stacks) by sweeping four rows of hay into bundles. The rucks were then hoisted by a rucklifter onto a cart; taken to the stackyard where stacks were built, and thatched with straw. This method has been replaced by cutting with a disc mower, machine turning and baling. One similarity remains however - you still need good weather to make good hay! Wet days in the summer are still a time for tidying up but, where weeds used to be hand-cut by scythes, now there are machines for that job too.

Harvest was the next major task, but today combine harvesters and the ability to dry the barley or store it while damp in towers after treatment with propionic acid, makes that task much quicker and less weather dependent. Originally, the corn was cut by scythes; reapers followed, and in the 1930’s, binders. A team of people lifted the straw into bundles, called sheaves (except when the binder had done that for you!), and built them in sixes or eights into a stook. These were left for about two weeks of good weather before they were carted in. If the weather wasn’t too kind it would be necessary to turn or shift the stooks - stook hunting was not a popular job!

Once the stooks had been brought to the yard, they too were built into stacks by an experienced builder aided by a handler - often known as a hanger! In poor weather the harvest could take several months, and so almost ran into the mill days when the mill came in to thresh the corn to provide some of the winter feed.

A more recent idea has been to sow some cereal crops and also reseed in the autumn. A plough is still often used, but the old grass can now be burnt off by chemicals and big heavy disc harrows can adequately prepare the seed bed.


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