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September scything: traditional skills and modern conservation

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Posted: Thursday 28th September 2017 by WildBlog

By Naomi Fuller, Communications Manager

Warm autumn sunshine warmed my back as I climbed up a hilly grassland field on the outskirts of Bath recently, joining a team of Avon Wildlife Trust conservation staff and volunteers carrying scythes, loppers, rakes and pitchforks. It was the perfect day to get away from my desk and computer, out in nature, and do some hands-on work.

Before long, the soothing sounds of scythes swishing through grass, the call of buzzards high above our heads and the drone of bees were the only sounds to be heard. We were busy getting this steep wildflower meadow into good condition for next year – making sure that wildflowers, insects and birds, all have the best opportunity to flourish.

The field we were working in is part of land owned by a market gardening business near Batheaston. The land has been in the family for decades and the owners are passionate about preserving the beauty and value of the chalk grassland and abundance of wildflowers on their site. But the top grassland meadows are steeply sloping and inaccessible to tractors or other machinery. Working carefully by hand is the only way to clear the ground of invading scrub like blackthorn, and cut down tall, dominant grasses, thistles and nettles which if unchecked, can stop lower-growing wildflowers thriving.

So, with nine other volunteers, and under the gaze of Rosie Maple – Avon Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscapes Officer – I got to grips (literally) with my scythe for the day. I learnt to adjust the snath – the wooden handle – to my height, and how to sharpen the blade with a whetstone to ensure it cuts cleanly and effortlessly through grass stems.

My first attempts were far from effortless – and I made several clumsy starts – lunging and jabbing at the high grasses which resulted in me getting hot and bothered but did not achieve much actual grass cutting! Thankfully more practised volunteers gave gentle guidance, suggesting ways to minimise effort, swing the blade close to the ground tracing an arc, and develop a rhythmical swing.

We fanned out across the hillside – each of us working on a patch of rough grass which gradually filled with piles of cuttings before we moved on. It became like a silent dance, each of us absorbed in swishing our scythe at our own pace and I had chance to reflect on the place of this traditional agricultural skill in modern conservation.

Scything is thought to have been invented in about 500BC and appeared in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. Before agricultural machinery, it was the only way to mow meadowland, and was usually done by groups working clockwise in unison through each field. Scything is easier when grass is damp – the moisture allowing the blade to move more easily – so haymaking traditionally began at dawn and stopped when the heat of the day built up.

Like other conservation organisations – including the other 46 Wildlife Trusts across the UK – Avon Wildlife Trust is using up to date techniques to enhance and protect land for nature and wildlife. These include sophisticated landscape mapping, soil analysis and species monitoring. But amongst these modern approaches, in hidden pockets of valuable conservation land – there will still be a place for some of traditional skills used for centuries to work and cherish the land in harmony with nature. Despite aching muscles after my day’s scything – I was pleased to have had a go at one of those skills.

If you would like to join our volunteers in some of the hands-on work on some of our reserves and other sites, vist our website

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