THE COUNTRY’S FAVOURITE FARMER GIVES US HIS MONTHLY GUIDE TO AGRICULTURE IN BRITAIN SPRING TRADITIONS ON THE FARM
May is the time for flower shows, horse trials and the first outdoor music festivals of the year. It’s also the month when the whole of the UK enjoys two Bank Holidays within the space of a few weeks. But the longer days and warmer weather also bring some very old annual traditions with their roots in farming and the rural way of life.
FERTILE LIVESTOCK AND PRODUCTIVE LAND
The first day of the month, May Day, is known around the world as the International Workers’ Day. But in England, the occasion goes back centuries and started as an agricultural celebration to mark the fertility of the land and the livestock. Before modern science and technology improved arable growing and animal husbandry, farmers had to put their faith in legend and superstition. Spring was when crops were sown and most livestock were bred. In the pre-industrial world, good harvests and plenty of healthy animals to eat and to sell really was a matter of life or death.
So a whole array of fertility rites and customs grew up around ensuring virility and productivity. Even the Romans held a festival at this time of year in honour of Flora, their goddess associated with flowers. The ancient Celts called it Beltane and lit fires on high ground in the hope of bringing fruitfulness to the trees, crops and livestock. In some places, cattle were herded between fires – it’s thought that the smoke or ashes would protect against disease. In the English tradition, people gathered to sing, dance and display garlands while the character of The Green Man, dressed in leaves, was an obvious symbol of rebirth and new growth.
MAY MOP FAIRS
In May, hiring fairs were held in market towns all over the country, providing labourers and servants with the chance to come face to face with landowners in need of new staff. In many places, May Day was the traditional spring date for this and anyone who was available for hire would wear an emblem on their lapel or hat to represent their preferred job. Shepherds wore a tuft of wool, herdsmen displayed a hay stalk and milkmaids would have a bunch of cow hair. Girls wanting to be housemaids carried the strands from a mop, and it’s thanks to them that these events became known as ‘Mop Fairs’. If the employer was impressed with the man or woman he met, then they would begin bargaining over wages, working conditions and lodgings. The last hirings like this took place around a century ago when proper employment laws came in, but Mop Fairs live on today as funfairs in many country towns.
The demands of modern agriculture mean that most farmers don’t have much time to follow or take part in old May traditions. In fact, many of us don’t even have the chance to take a day off on the May Bank Holiday. But as farming becomes an increasingly global industry, the culture and heritage embedded in our upbringing takes on a special meaning, with traditions such as morris dancing and maypoles still welcomed by Britain’s farmers.
The world’s favourite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May” Edwin Way Teale
Market town Mop Fair in south England, 1935