WITHIN living memory, haytime was the busiest period on Westmorland farms in high summer.

Unlike the principal modern fodder of silage, whose ‘first cut’ can be in early May, haytime traditionally did not begin until the longest day.

Thus in 1912 ‘haytime hirings’ for casual labour were held at Kirkby Stephen on the last Monday in June.

In South Westmorland until the 1950s Irish hay-timers were recruited and at Moss Side, Heversham they slept in an outside shed ‘on account of the fleas’.

They were paid £20 per month compared to £6-£7 in 1906.

Further back, in 1667, men haymakers, per day, got ‘2d with meat’ or 9d without. The respective rates for women were 1d or 5d. Mowers of grass (who used a sickle rather than a scythe) got 2d or 9d. Horse-drawn mechanical mowers did not come in until c.1900.

Owing to its rugged terrain, only a quarter of Westmorland (amounting to 115,000 acres) could be cultivated so hay-meadows were valuable property.

Hence, at Troutbeck, ‘outland’ on the fell side was let at 10 shillings an acre but down in the valley the rate was 50 shillings.

Around Kendal ‘where dung can be purchased for manuring after the first crop’, the rent could be £4 but the yield of hay would be 120 stones per acre, double that of poor land.

In 1794 it was reported that a cubic yard of ‘well pressed mow’ weighing 12 stones could sell in winter for 7 or 8 shillings. Everything depended on the weather. Before being brought in, the ‘fresh cut’ crop had to ‘wilt’ for at least four days, though a longer spell of up two weeks created a better product.

In wet years, like 1872 and 1903 when, in Kendal between 65-70 inches of rainfall were recorded (twice the average), hardly any hay was made at all.

To avoid damp hay being brought in, which could generate barn fires, the crop had to be turned daily by hand rake which, in broiling weather, could lead to heat stroke - as in 1825 when, at Watercrook, Kendal, three horses and an 84-year-old man dropped dead of ‘coup de soleil’.

Similarly, sunstroke was blamed for ‘the sad demise’ of 57-years-old hay-timer Robert Read who, in July 1894, fell to his death from the hay loft of the Commercial Inn at Holme.

Magnanimously, the coroner recorded that ‘the deceased had been quite sober’.