27th August 2020
Harvest: “The time of year when crops are cut and collected from the fields, or the activity of cutting and collecting them, or the crops that are cut and collected.” Cambridge English Dictionary.
I have been on holiday for 2 weeks (I say holiday but actually mean moving house) and when I returned to this green and pleasant land it was distinctly yellowy-brown and under full scale attack from a multitude of large machines.
Harvest was well under way with most of Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire seemingly having been cut down, baled up and carted away.
Predictions are for a slightly lower (10%) yield than average (UK average: winter wheat 9.9 tonnes/hectare and winter barley 8.8t/ha*), but with the extremes of the wet winter and dry spring followed by hot, dry summer this was to be expected.
Before the Second World War yields were much lower: between 2 and 3 tonnes per hectare for wheat and barley and the process obviously took a lot longer.
Long days with large machines mean this harvesting task is carried out swiftly and efficiently. I’m most impressed by the neat cuts on the wheat stems after what must be verging on millions of previous cuts; my mower doesn’t stay that sharp. Very little is wasted and the fields are cleared and ready for the next operation or crop within days; I’ve spotted some ploughed fields already.
An acre was the amount of land a yoke (or pair) of oxen could plough in one day (horses were a little quicker and so could do slightly more). Here is a glimpse of oxen in action. It is one chain wide by one furlong (standard surveying units dating from the 17th century. A chain is 66 feet – the length of a cricket pitch incidentally – a furlong being ‘a furrow long’ and equivalent to 10 chains). Modern machines will be ploughing roughly 25 acres a day. One hectare is 2.47 acres so that is about 10ha per day in new money. Fields have got bigger, hedges are fewer, gateways are wider, speed of operation is much faster and yields are up some 300% on their mid-20th century averages.
Closer to home the verges have been ‘harvested’. A council policy of letting them grow long to encourage wild flowers and attract insect life has led to a colourful, knee-high forest of waving grasses and ‘umbels’ of yarrow flowers.
It seemed to be working very nicely and has now been cut and collected leaving it tidy before the weather changes. Other umbellifers (those with ‘complex’ flower heads that look rather like flat-topped umbrellas) to look out for are wild carrot, wild parsnip (more yellow), cow parsley and possibly giant hogweed – a huge and potentially poisonous plant which can grow up to 5m tall.