My near spiritual experience with a wonderful scythe (2024)

The sounds and smells of a scythe cut meadow are wonderful, explains Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserves Officer Robert Morgan.

As I have commented before, meadows are in depressingly short supply, so Norfolk Wildlife Trust has been appealing this summer for support in improving and increasing wildflower meadows in our county.

Understandably modernised farming no longer required them for animal fodder, and most were ploughed out within a generation.

Excluding a few rare exceptions, it is fair to say we lost virtually all of them.

In recent years NWT has been working with landowners, both farmers and parish councils, to return wildflower meadows to our countryside.

My journey to learn more about our county’s new meadows and their traditional management led me to the wonderful discovery of the ancient art of scything.

(Image: Robert Morgan)

Wildlife conservation can involve some heavy-duty agricultural work, for it often requires the use of a wide range of mechanical equipment, both large and small.

Being at the pit-face of conservation I am all in favour of these labour-saving apparatus, without them it would be slow, arduous work.

Although, where possible, conservation organisations are rightly moving over to battery powered machinery – some are even taking a more radical approach and advocating a return to traditional agrarian hand-tools.

Many seasoned professionals scoff at the very idea, so it remains a rather niche activity, but one I wanted to discover more about.

As it turned out, the scythe is not a quaint hobbyist tool for well-meaning amateurs, but a serious and effective alternative to its modern, costly and resource hungry equivalent.

On a rain-soaked Friday at a secret location in the Norfolk Broads, I met with some of these would be revolutionaries, and very quickly my faith in machines was being challenged by their leader; the botanist, commercial seedsman and scythe guru Richard Brown of the British Scythe Association.

We huddled together under the tin roof of a remote barn, straining to hear Richard’s hushed voice above the drum of rainfall. He instructed us on the history, use and maintenance of a modern scythe, which included some invaluable information on good meadow management too.

(Image: RSWT)

I own an old English scythe and made several attempts to use it, but with little success, and this appears to be most novice scythe mowers’ experience.

Richard explained that the English scythes were purpose built for an individual by the blacksmith, mine was tailored for a man of five foot four!

The Austrian scythe prescribed by Richard, and the one we were being instructed on, was lighter, the blade was thinner making it easier to sharpen and the position of the handles could be adjusted to suit.

Richard sat astride his hand-made solid oak peening stool and, along with several witty and wistful anecdotes, skilfully demonstrated how to ‘peen’ flat the leading edge of the blade.

Like the rhythmic counting of rosary beads the hammer bounced on the specially designed ‘blade biting’ jig.

Upon releasing the blade, and with astonishing dexterity, he sharpened the leading edge with a whetstone.

The stone was run back and forth, lubricated occasionally by dipping it in a vessel of water; even by eye one could see the blade had the edge of a cut-throat razor.

I was completely won over by Richard’s enthusiasm for scything, we even learned how to incorporate Tai-chi into our swing and motion when carrying out a dry run in the barn.

(Image: Robert Morgan)

As soon as there was a break in the rain, we were out on the fen ready for a proper practice.

To say it was a spiritual experience, is probably over stating it a little, but the swing of the scythe followed by the swish and chop noise as it eased through the vegetation was wonderful – subtly changing depending on the plant structure.

The initial scent of newly cut herbs changed as we moved through the fen, from water mint to ragged robin and the lemon odour of marsh valerian.

It is certainly an improvement on engine fumes. Without the sound of a motor one can hear the birds singing and the hum of insects.

If you get the hang of the technique, you can hold a conversation with colleagues scything to the front and rear of you, and of course, no ear defenders are needed.

The speed at which I progressed through the vegetation was surprising, and with some practice I’m sure I can equal the rate at which I cut a wet meadow with its petrol driven equivalent [I can feel a challenge looming].

A scythe is easy to maintain, cheaper to buy and safer than the mechanical equivalent.

It’s not just the absence of fossil fuels that make it environmentally friendly, there’s no noise pollution, and as a method of habitat management it is less intrusive for wildlife.

Scything, and other traditional methods, when mastered are not that much more labour intensive.

(Image: Robert Morgan)

But, with greater numbers of people discovering new pleasures in the natural world, and early retirement on the increase, a fitter older population is looking around for things to do.

This army of potential volunteers is an underutilised resource, and if you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, then teach old dogs old tricks! The big win is that the machine powering the tool can be run on a ploughman’s lunch, and I’d consider that an environmentally friendly fuel!

Until the alchemy of re-wildling is achieved our largest nature reserves will continue to require mechanical help with the heavy lifting; but as the sun broke through the parting rainclouds, a beam of light shone upon an East Anglian fen and my conversion to ‘The way of the Scythe’ was complete.

NWT Meadows Appeal

You can donate to Norfolk Wildlife Trust and support our work restoring Norfolk’s meadows, and with them, the wildlife that depends on them. The money raised will help support our core activates within the Nature Recovery Team so they can continue their advice work and collaborations with landowners to create and restore meadows.

NWT’s appeal, with your help so far, has reached over half of its £30,000 target. Thank you.

For further information please see:

My near spiritual experience with a wonderful scythe (2024)
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