October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – Away te the bent

Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.

By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg

An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton & Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact donaldclegg@btopenworld.com

For the lowse man hired for the hay up the North Tyne or Rede, his contract was not over when the pikes were led in and the stacks theaked. Nowt the kind, there was the bent hay oot on the fell to be won!

The famous poem “Northumberland” that we all learned at school about the "heather land and bent land, black land and white" describes the critical differences in the herbage on a hill farm. This controlled profit, as feed was critical to survival during the lang cowld wintors.

The real ootbye farms that the Forestry Commission planted first in the 1920-30s had very little inbye land in the form of enclosed fields. These fields were the precious areas that got the byre and hemmel muck in the late winter, wintered the hoggs before being grazed by yowes with twins, or maybe lambing the gimmers as well as keeping any sickly sheep that couldn’t handle the hill.

Then these inbye fields were cut for hay - the precious winter lifeline till next spring. But there was nivor enuff hay. There has never been a North Tyne or Rede farmer born, who would admit he had enough hay – not even aboot enough! So when the meadow hay was won, and if the weather was settled, the next job was to gan away te the hill and win some bent. It was even more important if the inbye hay had been a poor crop or badly won.

The "bent" grasses were the Agrostis species - the ones with wiry leaves such as Agrostis tenuis designed for survival in tough conditions. By the end of summer their leaves are white, sharp, dead needles of very little feed value.

Then there was Molinia - a broader-leafed bent called "flying bent" which was the one cut for hay. Flying bent was well named as once the leaves died off, they ended up flying across the fell in the wind to be trapped along the dyke backs and even between the staenes in the dyke, as any keen young rabbiter will remember tryin to howk a rabbit oot o’ the waal. Molinia pasture if cut fairly regularly became just like an inbye field.

The Agrostis species grew in "bull snoots" - great tufts that the famous Rogerson's heord laddie beuts were designed to negotiate. These clumps were far ower hard to cut with the horse-drawn sickle-bar mowing machine, and would have brayed the machine te bits imprintig “McCormack” on the louse man's hint end, unless he put a bag of bent on the iron seat!

So after a few draas and a spit from the boss's pipe, the hayman would be directed to make the trek to the hill with the mower, the raker and the sweep. By this time of year, it was often aroond Falstone, Bellingham and Rochester show, the nights wor cuttin’ in and the dew late to lift. As we can read in the ballad ‘The Battle of Otterburn’, it “fell aboot the Lammas tide, when the muir men win their hay”.

But this was not the worry it would have been with inbye hay, because the one outstanding feature of the bent was that it was aafu’ easily won. This was because by that time of the year it had started its own slow death so could be cut one day and piked the next - provided they were canny little hand-made pikes and not greet muckle possed pomors. The hay was rarely led haeme but was stacked in some handy corner of the fell where the dyke gave some shelter and the ootlyers could gather for their daily feed in time of storm.

Bent hay was really only cattle fother, and if it had been won well would have a feeding value of mabbe barley straw. If it was won badly and gat sairly wet and went mouldy, it would only be "fill belly" with few nutrients in it to benefit the bease.

The solution of course as with all bad hay, was te cover hor wi' plenty o' treacle – pronounced “tre-akel”. The owld Galloway cuws were just like the bairns - a bit of sweetness could fool them for a while. It was when you saw muck like liquorice Pontefract cakes cumin’ oot the other end that you realised what a struggle the beast’s digestive system must have had to get rid of it!

Some bent hay if it was gitten in canny fettle, would maybe be brrowt haeme for the bease that were wintered inside. What they didn’t eat fell back from the trow and was used for beddin’. The hoose cuw, calves and stirks would always get the good hay as well as the bairns' pony, whose job it was to carry them unfailingly to school.

To today’s farmers with their colourful big silage bales tidied up long afore Falstone show, having te gan away and win some bent is just a faint memory of ancient history recited by their fathors and grandas.

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