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Archive for June, 2013

DSCF9226Where have all the wildflowers gone? For some reason hay meadows, or rather the lack of them and the consequent lack of  variety in our wildflowers have been hitting the news in the last few weeks. So last weekend it was a pleasure to be teaching mowing by scythe and grassland management in one of the traditional wildflower meadows on top of the North Downs near Guildford.

DSCF9220-001The part of the meadow we use for the course is managed by Transition Guildford with support from Surrey Wildlife Trust and used to grow local produce. Over the last year they’ve been busy extending the orchard as well as managing the polytunnel and vegetable beds but that still leaves a lot of grassland to be managed. Somehow I could sense that everyone on the course was keen for me to get the health & safety and the scythe setup out of the way so they could get to grips with the grass.

DSCF9212This is the third year we’ve been running the course, cutting on the site and the sward ( the mat of grasses and flowers making up the turf) is responding to the management by getting less dense and easier to mow.

You may be wondering why we’re cutting the grass in late June whilst the wildflowers are still at their height and some of the annuals have yet to set seed?  Unlike a modern industrial farming operation we can’t cut all of the meadow at one go, in fact we’re only cutting a small patch for the course. We’re starting early but we won’t finish the job until early September when we hold another course and we’ve left most of the meadow and all of the areas with annual flowers still to set seed – particularly the Yellow Rattle. Yellow Rattle is now rare but used to be widespread and as it’s parasitic it weakens the grass in the sward allowing the wildflowers to compete  more effectively.

Image0023Despite our keen scything team the most important part of the job is not the mowing, it’s the raking, forking and barrowing the mown grass away from the meadow. Removing it helps to reduce the  level of  nutrients in the soil and now more wildflowers will be able to take advantage of  bare patches and less aggressive grass to seed and thrive. Rachel supervised the growing mound of grass and slowly moulded it into an enormous sculpture. The mown grass will be used as a mulch for the vegetable beds and orchard trees so the nutrients are removed from one area and then used where they will be of more value in producing fruit and vegetables.

DSCF9233It can be hard on a course to finish a job but this group seemed to have no problem making a neat finish to the work and the rain even managed to hold off for us. Next stop is Wimpole Hall this weekend for the Eastern Counties Scything championships.

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It’s that time of year again. I’ve spent the last week helping to setup and then competing at the West Country Scythe Championships, held on a meadow near Muchelney deep on the Somerset Levels.

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When I arrived on Tuesday afternoon it was to a nearly empty field. But not for long. Just like the Bodgers Ball there is a lot of work that goes on in the background to prepare for the Green Fair and Scythe Championships on Sunday. But the West Country Championship is effectively the national event and it’s a long, long apprehensive wait through the week  for the finals of the Scything competition on the Sunday afternoon.

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Time to get to work, helping with Simon’s erection, a traditional pole and canvas marquee, very much in keeping with the ethos of the event.

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Unfortunately we can’t just wade in and enjoy mowing the meadow – much of the work is mowing neat 1metre (yes I do think they are 3foot 3inch) paths to mark out the competition plots. Mowing 1 metre paths is a strange practice discipline for the competition.

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As  more and more people arrive through the week the work goes faster and faster. With the good weather and an experienced crew, thanks mainly to Jim and Chris we got through the setting out of the plots in good time leaving plenty of time for chatting with friends and renewing old acquaintances.

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We produced plenty of mown grass for Pedro the Hay to barrow around to the Hay making competition arena. More of the hay making competition when I get hold of some photos – as someone placed a megaphone in my hands I ended up comparing on the day and unable to take photos.

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To my delight Mike Abbott turned up to demonstrate steam bending of some English Snathes (Scythe handles or poles).  As you may know I’ve been increasingly captivated by the Old English Scythe and promptly wound Mike and his demonstration into the talk on the English Scythe on Saturday Afternoon. I’ll put another post up on Mike’s snathe making demonstrations soon.

The English Snathe has a characteristic curvy shape very different from the more angular continental scythe snathes and to our knowledge English style snathes have not been made for a good few years, decades even as the last English Scythe blades were made in the 1970’s and most of those had American Snathes. So it’s particularly exciting to see Mike steam bending a snathe and I’m very keen to give it a go in the near future. But first I’ve got to prove that the English Scythe is every bit as good as it’s upstart cousin the Austrian Scythe.

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Talking of which, the last of the mowing around the competition plots allowed me some practice with my English Scythe (photo courtesy of Steve Tomlin). This year I’ve acquired an old Isaac Nash Crown blade on an American Ash snathe which I’ve spent the last few weeks restoring to working order from a rusty length of iron and delaminating dry splintered lump of wood. The blade has been straightened with help from my friend Martin Fox, a blacksmith at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum and it’s starting to cut much better now I’ve ground the edge back.  My aim is to continue to improve the performance of the English Scythe. But will the Scythe and I be up to competing on Sunday?

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As more Scythers are drawn in by the hot sunny (if a little windy) weather the number of scythes parked on the rack starts to swell rapidly.

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Good weather on Sunday and Green Fair and Scythe Championships draw in the crowds. Taking part in the Team Mowing, Heats, Hay Making competition and at the last the finals I don’t have much time to take photos but at least it keeps me busy and I don’t have too much time to fret with everything coming down to a couple of minutes and a single chance in the finals.

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Much of the remaining time is spent in nervous preparations for the final race. The Austrian Scythes are being carefully prepared by peening (hammering) the edge to a razor sharpness. Chris Riley shows how to peen with plenty of style.

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Sadly I don’t have any photos of the event so I’ll cut to the chase and reveal that the Scythe and I did alright. I beat the record for the English scythe at the competition by around 70seconds, from 3mins 20secs down to 2mins 06 seconds, in the process successfully defending my title as English Scythe Champion.

Can I do that acceptance speech now? I’d like to thank my mother…………..oh ok maybe not the full speech then. But it was great to work with such a great crew on the Setup, Jim, Chris, Gemma, Beth, Simon(the Guvna), Stewart, Al, Ed,Pedro the Hay and uncle tom cobbley and…… whoops there I go again. Then to compete alongside Mike, George (deservedly the new Scythe Champion), Simon, Ded, Andy and Andi (Women’s Champion) – well done folks it was a great contest.

I know the English Scythe is capable of going both faster and with higher quality (even if I’m not) and let’s face it, it’s high time that we showed that the English Scythe is not just a museum piece and capable of performing at the same level as the Austrian Scythe. This year is a good step in that direction and I’ll get another chance to show what it can do at the Eastern Counties Championship in a couple of weeks time.

Oh and did I mention that I won a medal?

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