Wuffling in the sunshine

A summer's day spent cutting and wrapping silage can be idyllic

Our summer seems to be taking a bit of a holiday at the moment, with the mild and (occasionally) sunny weather having given way to rain, strong winds and biting cold. It feels like winter has returned already.

Throughout the year there are jobs that rely on the weather behaving itself, and summer is certainly no exception. One of the most important jobs of the season is making silage, which is used as feeding through the winter. Silage is basically just various grasses that are allowed to grow tall, then cut, dried a little, and wrapped in bales to ferment for a few months before being fed to the sheep.

With the warm weather earlier in the month a good proportion of the island’s silage has already been cut and baled; everyone else is now waiting for the sunshine to return.

The job requires at least two dry, and preferably sunny, days in a row to be done properly. The first day the silage is cut into lines and then left to dry out. The grass can also be turned to aid the drying process, either by hand or with a machine called a “wuffler”, which, er, wuffles it a bit.

The following day is the bigger job, which also requires more people. A tractor with a baling machine attached moves slowly around the field; the grass goes in at one end, then comes out the other end in tightly-packed cylinders about a metre long.

Another tractor follows it around with a trailer and a team of lifters on the back. They pile the bales up on the trailer and take them to yet another machine, where they are each spun around and wrapped in plastic, then stacked up ready for the winter. Each field may have upwards of 100 bales in it to be processed in this way.

Although there is a core of folk who are nearly always involved in the work (generally those people who own tractors), it also requires more people to come out and help. The more people there are the easier it becomes and the less time it takes.

This is one of those community jobs where folk help each other because they need help themselves; if you want people to turn up when your silage is being done then it’s only fair to go and work when other people are doing theirs.

On the whole, silage days tend to be fairly sociable events. The children are usually on their summer holidays so they always get involved, and because the job needs to be done in good weather, people are quite happy to be out in the sunshine doing something useful.

It can at times feel like an idyllic pursuit, though the aching back and muscles the following day normally dispel that illusion. Until the next time.

The silage baler is actually quite a recent addition to crofting equipment on the island. In the past many people had pits, into which the cut grass was packed. But that tended to be a fairly inefficient and difficult means of creating silage, with a lot of wastage, and so the baler has proved a very welcome development.

It was also normal until not so long ago for crofts to make hay as well as, or instead of, silage. But haymaking is a far more labour-intensive process, with days of repeated turning and stacking required to get the grass sufficiently dry.

The weather here is simply not reliable enough for good haymaking, and so an activity that had been part of life in Fair Isle for many hundreds of years is now almost completely gone.

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As summer marches briskly on, the time has come for a short holiday. A break from blogging is required, and so my next will be on 20 August.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism