The old art of scything is making a comeback and there’s chance to see this traditional skill in action at Bodnant Garden – and even have a go at swinging a scythe yourself.
We’re running two scything workshops on August 18 and 19 when visitors can join staff learning about this long-lost method of grass cutting. Gardener Laura Jones says: “Scything is undergoing a renaissance. It’s an environmentally-friendly means of cutting grass – and it’s much quieter than your average mower! For wild grass areas and patches of meadow it’s a real alternative.”
The sight of men and women out in the fields harvesting the old fashioned way was a familiar sight for hundreds of years. In the 20th century the scythe was replaced by mowers and strimmers but these days local authorities, stately homes and even domestic gardeners are picking up the traditional tool again as a zero-carbon alternative to managing weeds and grass.
The scythe is designed for cutting vegetation at ground level, both for cutting both meadow grass and for harvesting oats, barley and other grains. There’s evidence that it has been around since the Romans, but it became the tool of choice in Britain from the 1700s when industrialisation made the scythe easier to manufacture. It replaced the sickle and apparently caused widespread outrage among working women, who were deemed too dainty to wield the larger implement – they were ousted from harvesting and relegated to lower paid work picking up crops behind the men folk.
Traditional English scythes were produced in England until the mid-1900s, particularly in Sheffield, but sadly the industry is no more. They have been replaced by the newer continental or Austrian scythes which are hand forged, thinner, lighter and easier to use and maintain – which has contributed to the rise in scything’s popularity.
Our scything workshops will be run by Sion Jinkinson, woodland contractor for the North Wales Wildlife Trust and an instructor with the Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland. He says: “There’s definitely been a big rise in interest in scything in recent years. We taught 100 people to scythe last year in North Wales.
“Some people come along just for the fun of learning. Some people want to use the scythe at home – maybe they have an orchard and don’t want to strim near trees, or maybe they have an acre of land to manage and no tractor. Grass has to be cut or it turns to scrub, and scything can be a good solution in some situations. We also do work for organisations like Denbighshire Countryside Service, who may want an area cut without the noise and disturbance of strimmers.
“With the new, lighter Austrian scythes it’s something most people can master. I teach all ages and abilities – I’ve had a little girl of six and a lady of 86 on my courses – the elderly lady remembered, as a girl, watching locals scything the land. It’s good to keep this traditional skill alive, and of course it also has benefits for the environment.”
We’re running the courses as part of Bodnant Garden’s grassland management project, which has been funded by Natural Resources Wales for the last two years.
Along with other National Trust properties in Wales we are doing our bit to maintain and develop species-rich meadows. We have lost around 99% of our hay meadows in Wales in the last 60 years – the knock on effect is a decline in butterflies and bees, which has big implications for the pollination of our crops. There’s evidence the decline in grasslands may be affecting climate change too, as they store and use carbon at a higher rate than forests.
At Bodnant, gardeners are practising traditional, low level maintenance on meadows at Cae Poeth, Furnace Field and Old Park – cutting grass and removing the hay in August, avoiding feeds and herbicides, mechanically removing bracken, thistles, docks and nettles, grazing in the autumn where possible – and just as importantly, inviting people to enjoy these areas.
Sowing Yellow Rattle is just one of the things we’re doing to improve our meadows – it reduces the soil fertility, allowing wild flowers to thrive
Laura says: “Scything benefits the environment; there’s no fuel used in the manufacture or use of scythes, there’s less disturbance of soil, it leaves a cleaner finish than strimming and is kinder to wildlife as the user can avoid creatures in the grass.
“For the user it’s cleaner, quieter, there’s no vibration or risk of flying stones, there’s more control and the tools can be used in almost any weather. It’s cheaper too as one scythe can last a lifetime – it can also be a relaxing thing to do once you’ve got the technique right!”
“We probably won’t be using scythes on the formal lawns…but we’re keen to find out whether we can use them here on our meadows. It’s also just a great skill to learn and we hope visitors will enjoy it too – and maybe go away and try it in their own plots.”
Bodnant Garden scything days will take place on August 18th (for staff) and August 19th (for visitors). There is no cost but places are limited to ten per day so booking is essential on 01492 650460. Garden visitors are welcome to come along and watch on both days.
For more information about Bodnant Garden’s grassland management, or tips for your own mini-meadow, see our video at bit.ly/1z7MWcm