What does the word scything conjure up to you? Pleasant Constable-style images of haymakers in sunlit fields…or blood, sweat, tears and severed limbs?! Well gardeners and visitors were invited to set aside their preconceptions and try their hands at this old art of grass cutting recently, as part of a two day workshop with Sion Jinkinson, woodland contractor for the North Wales Wildlife Trust.
Sion is increasingly busy running scything workshops these days – he has been fully booked this year – and also does scything for local authorities and other groups who want small areas of grassland managed quietly, non-invasively and in an environmentally-friendly way. It’s clearly a growing trend.
Sion with gardener Laura; gardener Katie in the swing of things
We thought we’d give it a go as part of Bodnant Garden’s grassland management project, which has been funded by Natural Resources Wales. Along with other National Trust properties in Wales we are doing our bit to maintain and develop species-rich meadows, of which 99% have been lost in Wales in the last 60 years.
At Bodnant, we are now practising traditional, low level maintenance on our 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…and trying out some other methods like scything.
Sion gave us an introductory talk and demonstration of how to set up, sharpen, operate and dismantle the scythe (and some vital health and safety tips) then we were placed in a row across the meadow at a safe distance from each other, and we were off.
Thankfully the weather was kind and the whole experience was pleasantly surprising. I found scything not as physically hard as I expected – the new Austrian scythes are light and, with regular sharpening, slice through grass easily without too much back breaking effort. It was a revelation to see how much ground was covered so quickly. In fact I had none of the expected lower lumbar twinges during the day or afterwards (though curiously aching forearms…perhaps I had been giving it too much welly?)
Sion giving a demo and yours truly (Fran) giving it some welly
That’s not to say it wasn’t an effort, but going at a steady pace it didn’t feel like being part of a hay-making chain gang. Stopping every few minutes to sharpen the blade was an opportunity to admire the summer landscape, exchange words with a neighbour, watch a blue butterfly, and at the end of the day it was pleasing to look across a freshly mown meadow and think ‘we did that’. There were satisfied smiles from our gang of scythers and no severed limbs – though one or two people did report minor aches and pains the next day, in a range of bizarre places. Clearly scything gets to the parts other methods of grass cutting don’t.
A well oiled machine, without the machinery!
Strimming can be hard work too – it’s not all win-win with machinery. The professional cutters are heavy and cumbersome, noisy and headache-inducing and the necessity of helmets, visors, goggles and harness make it hard going in hot weather. Even with head gear, unless you are wearing a polo neck and balaclava you get hit on the chin, neck and arms by flying debris – it’s amazing how much a seed head against bare skin can sting when shot at speed from the metal blades of a brush cutter!
Gardener David in the obligatory Grim reaper pose
The environmental benefits of not using machinery are obvious – less fuel and noise pollution (although apparently in the past some lords and ladies did complain about the swish of scythers mowing the grass in front of their stately homes!) It’s horses for courses I guess. There are situations when only a tractor mounted machine, mechanical cutter or strimmer will do, but maybe there is a place for the good old fashioned scythe. If you’ve got an orchard or small holding it’s certainly a cheap and easy way to keep the grass down. Whether it will take on at Bodnant Garden…the jury is out but watch this space.
If you want to find out more you contact Sion Jinkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org You can also get a taste of our sycthing days on this video Tai Chi with A Blade bit.ly/1qpp9y9