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 and Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact email@example.com
You wadn’t believe huw lang we cud debate the subject of muck. Aa’ve seen the women folk so fed up with the topic, discussed at ivry meal time for about a month in winter, that they were riddy te clear oot. It was amazing how we could “taalk muck” with endless enthusiasm for hours, with the sort of interest shown by the connoisseurs of fine wine.
The boss, the hind and the Daft Laddie couldn't understand the womens’ complaints. Muck was the basis of the whole farming system before artifishil fortilizors started to appear. Lime and muck were all the land needed! We preached that they wor natural products and didn't force aall the gud oot o’ the grund, and grow hay crops that lay doon and that ye cudn't git won. In fact in today’s terms, we were organic farmers – so really there’s nowt new.
Muck was a vital by-product of the farming system up the Tyne and Rede and indeed the laddie wondered if his never-ending chore of “cut and carry in – shite and carry oot” would ever end! As a cow’s winter lavatory attendant you could only dream of May when the stock went ootside to kick up their heels and feed themselves. But the fascination and endless debate on muck came from the fact that, like a good wine, there were so many aspects to consider depending on your personal preferences, powers of observation and where it was going to be spread.
First, there were the major classifications to consider in order of mystical quality, most easily judged by colour, consistency and reek. There was hemmel muck, calf hutch muck, byre muck, and then plain common slurry or skitta, and finally yeddle which was more urine than muck! The class of muck dictated its ultimate use.
It was obvious te the Daftest Laddie that ye wadn't use byor muck for tettie drills, or deliver a load of skitta te Porcy in the village for his leeks. We Daft Laddies soon larned this from experience and lug chowins. So the physical consistency of muck was a critical factor and this was determined by water content which in turn was mainly controlled by the animal's diet. Indeed it was an important diagnostic question asked by the vet over the phone – “how is she iv hor muck”? And you had to be able to give the correct technical answer.
For example if the bease wor bein’ fed on canny newland hay, decent tornips and mebbe a bite o' caek, then a luvly consistency resulted. When fed on bad hay (mair akin te beddin’) and nee tornips, then the muck was like them liquorice caekes. If the Daft Laddie fed ower much kale or mangel, then when the wind blew the skitta really flew! An old hind friend once declared that he "had tean 22 full shoelfuus o’ skitta oot ahint a big owld Shorthorn cuw ivorry morneen”. She was a muckle greet muck factory. I checked his arithmetic and he was right!
Muck's consistency was also controlled by the amount of bedding used. Beddin’ was like gold and woe betide the Daft Laddie that was owwer rash when beddin’ up. The beddin could be leftovers from the hay or straw fed to the cattle, or it might be bad hay that the beast would sniff oot the tasty bits and leave the rest. It could even be oot-bye bent hay or bracken. The absorbent qualities of all these materials were different, so affected the final product.
The proportion of muck to beddin’ was a critical factor too, and you had to be very careful to strike the right balace when muckin’ oot and beddin’ up, so that the stock were kept clean but with the maximum amount of bedding saved.
The muck had a well planned journey. First it was shoeled oot from ahint the cuw and barrowed or hoyed on the midden in the yard. It could then be carted oot to be spread on the hayfields in the winter or made into a special midden near where the tillage was going to be. Here it would rot and reduce in bulk and turn into material that you could almost eat for your bait - luvly moist compost, full o' worms and nee smell a’maest."
Leadin’ and spreadin’ muck was another art. You yoked owld Blossom inte the caert and backed inte the midden. You loaded up so that she wasn't light o' the back. This meant that the weight was on the front of the cart (the caert heed) and the shafts stayed doon when the horse pulled. You also tried to keep the muck off yor claes and oot o' yor Wellies.
The best footwear was a good pair of Rogerson's heord laddie boots with leggings made from owld Wellington tops. You only cut the sole off the Wellingtons and left the rest to fit snugly over the boot, especially covering the lace holes. This magic combination was far healthier for your feet than wearing Wellingtons aall winter. It was safer too, as many a toe was spiked through the Wellie by the over enthusiastic wielding of a muck gripe.
When you got to the field, the distance left between the heaps dictated the rate per acre. Usually with byre muck it was about 5 yards for a dressing of about 10 tons/acre. At the shout of WOW, the horse stopped, and using the hack you pulled out a nice tidy heap of muck. "Gee-up", walk five yards, "WOW", hack out a heap and so on, striving for nice even, equidistant heaps that looked in good straight lines from all angles from the road or railway.
Spreddin’ or scalin’ muck was the worst part of the job although it had its artistic rewards. You spent all day bent over, shaking the muck out evenly from the heaps, so that a nice even cover resulted and nee greet lumps were left. I (DC) spread muck for most of one particular March when the weather was unusually warm and sunny. Aa was gay pleased te see the field gradually turn from green to brown as Aa worked across it, and me lass was even mair impressed wi me ower-aall sun tan, even if me aroma wasn’t ower attractive!
Spreadin’ muck with the gripe was terribly hard on your left forearm. And having your bait was always a challenge trying to find a bit of clean fingor to hold each sandwich. The trick was to feed the dog the last bit that you held on to! Owld Moss nivor refused it.
After that, all that was needed was the horse yoked into the chain harrows and the field left looking like the outfield at Lords. Any staenes on the surface of the grund had then to be picked off afore the grass grew in case they damaged the reaper.
Pickin’ staenes held little excitement for Daft Laddies. Indeed it was the pits of aall jobs. But one mentor told me the deal was - "afore ye bend yor back te pick a staene up, forst try te brae it inte the grund wi' your heel."
With tillage crops, the job was to muck the drills from the caert, first hoyin’ it oot in forkfuls and then spreadin’ it evenly as you walked along the adjacent drill. Good well-rotted, composted muck was the top choice for this job – muck that had been in a midden for at least 4-6 months or even up to a year. It just fell apart as you hit it with the gripe.
And then one day news started to spread of yet another farming revolution. They’d gitten a muck spreader at the Demense, the Reenes and the Riding. The news was red hot! “Man, ye fork the muck in, loadin’ hor from the front, and when ye git te the field ye set hor inte geor and the muck cums fleein’ oot the hint end as ye drive alang. Man, the muck gans in aall directions, and maekes a gay canny job o' spreedin’ an’aall. Mebbe not as geud as hand spreddin’ but oh! the job’s dun in minutes, man.”
Fortunately there was some fodder for the sceptics about this mechanical wonder. It was stressed that they divvent like ony staenes oot the bottom o' the midden steed, and the odd cuw cleenin’ or bindor twine thrrew hor works! And they leuk gay deor an’all – and remember the boss isn’t maede o’ money!
Also at this time in the 1950s, the battle between the old and new generations over “muck versus artifishel” fertilisers was hotting up. The old generation were convinced that artifishel fortilisor forced the grass, poisoned the soil and we’d end up wi’ hungry grund that wud grow nowt.
On the other hand they believed that muck had stood the test of time (from famous trials at Cockle Park no less), and was part of nature’s way of keeping things balanced. And most important of aall - it cost nowt! Cartin’ and spreadin’ muck was the basic winter job keepin’ the Daft Laddie from bein’ idle and pesterin’ the sarvant lass, and he culdn’t dee much damage with a horse and cart, gripe and muck hack! Owt he brok cud be fixed by the saddler or the blacksmith.
“But muck willn’t grow eneuf graass” was the cry of the younger generation who wanted to put on more of the new range of “bag mucks”. So there was nowt that pleased the old folk more than when gannin’ doon te Hexham on the bus iv a Tuesday, to see somebody’s hay crop lush and green - and flat!
“Aye, did ye see the hayfields at Mowdyhaugh - the yungun’s just come back from Korkley Haaall wi’ aal them daft ideas aboot artifishel - he’ll get a fair swet on rakin’ that lot back from the reapor bar”. That’ll bray sum sense intiv his daft heed!”
“Aye and anuthor thing - it’ll taek a blowd week to dry the top o’ the sweethes and a fortnight to dry them aftor thor torned! Wi muck man, ye git nice light crops that dry canny and ye can maek bonny hay!”
But lime and basic slag were exempt from suspicion. They were accepted as being much more natural for the soil. Lime was always seen as the great “sweetener’ of soils and basic slag had proved the test of time with all the research done at Cockle Park by them daft Professors. No, it was these fancy new bag mucks that wad be tue rruination o’ farmin by forcin’ the guts oot o’ the grund. Thor was nowt like the magic of muck