Tavish Scott: You can make hay while the sun shines

Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The crowd were knowledgeable. They peered over the fence at the assembled animals. A well kent local entered the ring and began the painstaking business. It was agricultural show day and the supreme champion was being judged.

I have not judged sheep, never mind the supreme champion at a stock show. Call it self-preservation or cowardice, but it takes considerable self-confidence to walk into a ring in front of your farming peers and select a Suffolk ewe over a Charolais bull calf and then walk away.

All judges are saved by two factors. First, next year’s show. The wrongs of 2013 will be put right by a different judge a year later who will most likely choose the bull calf over the ewe. Except he won’t, because a bull calf will be an entirely different beast in 12 months’ time.

The second factor that saves the judge is the beer tent. This is an essential part of the showground. It is where the true aficionados of the judging genre end up dissecting the performance of those unfortunate enough to choose the aforementioned Suffolk ewe. Thankfully, the longer this assessment goes on, the easier the judge’s verdict becomes to explain. By the time the showground closes for the day, there are critics who proclaim the supreme champion as one of their own.

Agriculture shows are a social occasion. That is if the summer has been kind enough to allow the silage to be cut, all the ewes to be clipped and all other essential work completed. In Shetland this means making hay.

Hay making is infinitely more difficult than cutting silage for winter fodder to feed cattle and sheep. Modern machinery and the pace of activity means that silage can be properly made in days rather than the weeks it used to take. But hay is an entirely different matter. A bale of hay is ideal sheep feed through the winter. On snowy days or around lambing, a bale of good-quality hay is a sheep’s equivalent of a decent feed in Martin Wishart’s restaurant.

But hay making is entirely dependent on good weather and, in particular, a drying sun. Shetland this summer has been misty. Days and days of warm still conditions but with sea haar has been annoying to locals and oil workers alike waiting for planes and helicopters. This does not make for good hay weather.

The long grass is first cut and then cured by the sun, turned by machinery to let the other side crisp up and then baled through a wonderful machine designed decades ago.

All this can be very straightforward: a week of sun and the job is done. A week of mist, light breezes and an occasional glimpse of warmth and the job carries on. One week can become two or indeed three. One young Shetland farmer said the solution is easy. Do not make hay. Just make silage. He will go far in this great industry of agriculture.

• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland