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.
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.