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Restoring hay meadows to former glory; Memories of yesteryear's hay harvest in the North East are being archived for future generations as efforts are stepped up to restore some of the region's meadows to their former glory. Karen Dent discovers more about the Hay Time project.

AN estimated 90% of Britain's hay meadows have been lost to progress and modern farming methods. Today's machinery and increased silage production means that plants once common in traditional meadows are less likely to survive because they are cut before they have time to seed.

Now work is under way to re-seed meadows in parts of the North East and the memories of the "bloody hard work" that went into the hay harvest in days gone by are being recorded for posterity. The Hay Time project, run by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership, is behind the initiative, which will archive retired farmers' hay harvest memories at Beamish Museum. There are also plans to stage an exhibition in Allendale next year.

On a practical level, the scheme is working with volunteers and sympathetic farmers to re-seed hay meadows with traditional plants, which provide valuable habitats for wildlife.

Neil Diment, Hay Time community officer, said: "Increased mechanisation led to the deterioration of the hay meadow. Three or four years ago, the Hay Time project was set up. There is a sister project in the Yorkshire Dales, restoring and enhancing those hay meadows that have survived.

"It is very much a project working with sympathetic farmers within agri-environment schemes to mechanically harvest with specialist equipment that contractors have developed.

"We take seeds from the 'good' meadows and spread them on the 'receptor' meadows.

"We plant them in the meadows of sympathetic and understanding farmers.

We have identified a meadow each in Teesdale, Weardale and Allendale to plant the seeds."

Many of the meadows that are still rich in traditional flora only made it into the post-war years because their owners rankled at being told what to do with their land.

Mr Diment said: "Why some of the hay meadows have survived is because of the independent mindedness of some farmers. It's the old cliche - you want to make hay while the sun shines.

"People don't like being told they can't cut their hay until a certain date. But if you cut early, which you do with silage making, the seeds are not ready. But many meadows survived because farmers didn't listen to that advice."

Most of the meadows that are being restored belong to farmers in Environmental Stewardship Schemes and the project wants to encourage more supportive tenants and landowners to move into Higher Level Stewardship Schemes. "An increasing number of people, smallholders with small fields or a few acres of meadow, are making up a significant proportion of the hay meadows," said Mr Diment.

"A lot of the best floras survived in the roadside banks and verges where our volunteers are collecting the seeds.

"Since the mechanical harvest, we have successfully reintroduced some of the annuals but the perennials are harder." Formerly a freelance heritage consultant who worked on a history of the North Pennines' hay meadows, Mr Diment is also passionate about the other side of the Hay Time project - collating and sharing farmers' memories.

He has interviewed around 20 retired farmers and the scheme is now looking for volunteers willing to type out those remembrances so a permanent record can be put on file.

"I found that absolutely fascinating, to talk to some of the old farmers," said Mr Diment.

"Up to the Second World War, things were still done very much by hand and horses. It feels like the halcyon days when communities pulled together but it was bloody hard work.

"It was touch and go sometimes whether they would get the hay in. Hay time was often the most important time of year - if they didn't get the hay in, they couldn't feed their stock in the winter."

It is vital, he believes, to pull together this vast store of information while we still can.

"Not that we're trying to turn back the clock but these farmers do have a lot of knowledge that we'd be wise to tap into while it's still around - the experience of how hay meadows used to be managed," said Mr Diment.

"It would take weeks but now it's done in one day by contractors. They didn't consider it was special in any way - it was tough in those days.

"Whereas there would be a harvest supper, they didn't seem to celebrate for such an important thing - part of it was as soon as you'd finished, you went and helped your neighbours."

Passing this information on to children and enthusing the younger generation with a love of the countryside is also a key aim of Hay Time.

Mr Diment, who takes the project into schools under his alter-ego of Mr Hay Rake, points to the introduction that David Bellamy wrote for an edition of a book on the flora of Durham, which bemoaned the loss of habitats he remembered from his youth.

"He introduced this idea that we should not be trying to create Sites of Special Scientific Interest but Sites of Special Childhood Interest," said Mr Diment.

"Children today don't get the opportunity to go out and enjoy the countryside.

We're trying to do that - establish sites of special childhood interest."

The transcribed interviews, which will eventually be available to read online, will be included in the History of Hay Time exhibition planned for Allendale next summer and in an accompanying souvenir book.

For a gallery of photographs from the archive log on to .uk


HALCYON DAYS Hard work by hand and horses. CLASS ACT Mr Hay Rake - aka Neil Diment - explores the meadow at Softley Farm with pupils from Herdley Bank First School Coanwood THE WAY THEY WERE Sweeping hay at Bowes in the 1920s.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 24, 2009
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