A particularly tough harvest

19th-century workers proclaim the end of the harvest with the last sheaf
19th-century workers proclaim the end of the harvest with the last sheaf

Last week’s fine weather allowed the combines into the wheat fields. As progress had been slow this year, the warm sunshine and drying winds arrived just in time.

Harvest is always a difficult time because a year’s work can be lost if it all goes wrong. But this year the weather made it particularly fraught and many farmers are saying they never want to see another year like it.

Harvesting is a dusty business and when all is gathered in, thoughts turn to a refreshing pint or two.

No doubt workers felt the same in the days of hand reaping and binding. But first, there was the tricky matter of the last sheaf to deal with.

Generally the last bit was bound and left standing while the men threw their sickles at it, to see who’d be first to cut it down. When scythes were introduced in the 19th century these were too cumbersome to throw, but the reapers came up with something even more challenging — scything down the corn while blindfolded.

What happened next depended on whether the last sheaf was thought lucky, or unlucky.

A lucky sheaf was decorated and carried home, to appear later at the harvest supper. But some local traditions held that the last sheaf was cursed, so it had to be disposed of in an appropriate fashion.

In northern England the unlucky sheaf, known as the Witch, was thrown into a field where harvesting was still underway. The gloating team would taunt the slower workers with a sarcastic speech, before howling like dogs.

In East Yorkshire the last sheaf was plaited into the Old Witch, and burned in the field. Peas were cooked in the ashes, while everyone danced to music from a fiddler. It’s thought that the custom died out in the mid-19th century.

Sunny days

September’s first week teased us with a taste of summer. Suddenly there were butterflies everywhere: red admirals, commas, whites large and small, holly blues, small tortoiseshells, and swarms of peacocks.

Though most of the buddleia flowers have come and gone without a visit from a butterfly, luckily some were left for the latecomers. After a lean summer honeybees were making the most of the good spell, as were wild carder bees and several species of bumblebees.

The cries of swallows filled the air on those fine evenings as they scooped up flies and midges on the wing. Mornings saw them gathering in groups on gutters and telephone wires, weighing up changes in air pressure against the shortening days.

One morning they decide that the time is right, and off they go. The first stop is usually the Humber estuary where they join up in large flocks with other swallows and house martins.

After a month of moult-induced silence broken only by the occasional cheep, a hesitant trickle of birdsong grabs attention in the garden.

The sound is sweet, almost wistful. The unseen singer is a robin, and the purpose of this autumn song is to warn off other robins. Every redbreast wants its own patch for the winter, and it will even fight its own offspring to keep it.