When the old ways are the best ways

When the old ways are the best ways

(c) Simon Holliday

Of all the most traditional of countryside activities, scything has to be at the top of the list. This ancient method of cutting meadows is thought to date back to Roman times, and it involves the use of a scythe – a tool consisting of a long, curving blade attached at an angle to a handle, for cutting grass, by hand. The rhythmic movements, the regular swishing sounds and the sight of a single human working in the land without machinery are all very evocative. It seems like a folk memory of our countryside as it once was, before the roar of the motor splintered the silence.

Happily for the nostalgic among us, it’s not just a folk memory. The TV series Poldark sparked a resurgence of interest after its handsome hero went shirtless for what became a very famous scene involving a scythe, a Cornish field, and some very suggestive camera-angles. Now the technique has taken centre-stage at College Green in central Bristol this year.

Back in April 2021, the College Green site was planted as a wildflower meadow by the team at Your Park Bristol and Bath, using wildflower plugs from Grow Wilder (Avon Wildlife Trust’s urban wildlife site) with the support of Avon Wildlife Trust volunteers. It was a real team effort, and the resulting explosion of colour on the site has given many thousands of passers-by – not to mention lots of pollinating insects - enormous amounts of pleasure since then.

The arrival of the equinox this week – when the day and night are equal in length – heralded the official start of autumn. It is important to cut this kind of site as the summer comes to end. Some people might find this surprising. It may feel that we are regularly urged to leave nature be, and let the wildlife do its own thing. The truth is more complicated, because when you are managing this kind of site, you need to create open ground for new seedlings to develop, and that means cutting the grass at the end of the summer. So, scythe in hand, that’s the task the team of experts and volunteers from Your Park and Avon Wildlife Trust took on at College Green last weekend.

You might ask the question: why not just use a machine to do this job? It’s fair to say a machine would be quicker, but there are many reasons to pick up a scythe instead. Scything is wildlife-friendly, because it gives the little creatures time to escape. Avon Wildlife Trust employees who have scythed on our reserves have spoken of finding all sorts of fungi, lizards and toads as they worked.  What’s more, the technique is great for people. With no dirty fuel, no fumes, no noise, no hand vibration and no flying stones, it truly is the civilised approach. As an extra bonus, it’s a great work-out!

No-one at College Green took off their shirt last weekend, but in every other way they would have made Poldark proud. Head down to Bristol City Centre to admire the results of their hard work for yourself!  Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story for College Green. Plans are afoot to help nature keep its foothold on the site, maintaining it as an oasis of beauty for Bristol’s people and an inspiration for those of us keen to see nature’s recovery in the Avon area. For more details about what’s in store for the site, check out Your Park Bristol and Bath's website.

Alternatively, if you want to create a similar haven in your garden or patio, why not come down to our wildflower nursery in Stapleton, Grow Wilder? You could pick up some wildflowers to take home, and maybe even get some tips from staff too. Meadows are for everyone, and the more we all learn about their importance, the better chance we have of helping them recover and thrive.