February 23, 2009

Daft Laddie tales from North Tyne & Rede: Bracken crushin

Northumberland, farming, history, dialect, daft laddies, farm machinery, bracken cutting, 1950s

By Donald Clegg

Dead bracken, smothering the pasture by Kielder dam

Crushin' the bracken
On another farm, with several years’ experience behind me, I was required to spend some days bracken crushing. On hill farms, good grazing for the sheep was at a premium so any encroachment on to grassy areas by gorse, heather or bracken was tackled with enthusiasm.

Gorse and heather could be burnt, which effectively stopped their advance, at least for a year or two. Bracken on the other hand, with its creeping, under-ground stems, was a different kettle of fish. Cutting it just encouraged more underground growth. Burning, similarly, had no effect. And bracken was poisonous to cattle at the green, actively-growing stage if they ate too much. It didn't take much to kill them.

Heather and bent grass could be burned to keep it short and nutritious, but burning bracken did no good. Its roots (rhizomes) below ground were well proteced from fire

Choice of weapons
Various pieces of equipment came onto the market in the 1950’s, and the simplest (and probably cheapest) was acquired by my new boss. It was pulled behind a tractor rather like a gang mower used for cutting sports' fields – three mowers in line abreast followed by two more behind them.
In the case of the bracken crusher, the mowers were replaced by heavy, square- section rollers, the idea being that, as the rollers turned, the sharp cutting edges of each roller would bruise and chop into the bracken’s root system just below the surface.

Eventually, after repeated application of the crusher, the bracken fronds would weaken and finally give up the ghost, allowing grass once again to grow through and flourish. This was a Daft Laddie’s dream of a job – spending days sitting on a tractor, dein’ nowt but steering and gazing out over the rolling hills, thinking of the next Saturday night dance. Couldn’t be easier, I thought.

Var nigh couped!
All went well for the first two days apart, that is, from one occasion when I almost capsized the tractor by driving across the face of a too steep hillside and another when I got much too close to a dry stone dyke and took ages to extricate myself. About three o’clock on the third day I had dealt with most of the bigger patches of bracken on the hill and had come down to a burn side just to finish off.

There was a particularly lush patch of bracken on the far side of the burn so I slithered and slipped the tractor and its crusher down a short, steep bank, through the burn and on to the other side. Half an hour later the bracken had been crushed and chopped to my satisfaction and I recrossed the burn ready to return to the farm. Now, however, the short, steep bank I’d so gaily slid down earlier, proved too steep and slippery for my tractor.

Late for lowse
The problem lay in the drag from the heavy crushing rollers so, after a lot of heaving and straining, and the loss of a considerable amount of sweat, I concluded I had no option but to start dismantling the rollers, one by one, and manhandling them to the top of the bank.

As each roller must have weighed about ten stones (140lbs), by the time I got all five of them, one at a time, dragged over the burn, hauled inch by inch up the bank and rearranged and reassembled on the opposite shore, I was totally exhausted. I eventually reached the farmyard nearly two hours after lowse (finishing time). The boss, in passing, remarked on my dedication to duty – but I never did recount the facts or claim the overtime!

Bracken (Pteridium esculentum)

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