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Not my favourite time of year. Last time I posted we were enjoying the end of a warm Autumnal November. Now we’re at the end of a drenched December and January that seems an impossibly long time ago and everything is just so Wet!

It’s been unseasonably warm (I’m told we should learn to expect that as the climate changes) and that doesn’t help at all as all my carefully prepared stacks of firewood have been exposed to continually moist air.

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The must-have present this winter for the firewood hunter gatherer of the family is the book attractively entitled ‘Norwegian Wood’ a well written story of woodsmen, firewood and beautiful Norwegian piles of firewood stacked outside and covered in snow.

But here in the British Isles our firewood no matter how carefully split, stacked and dried during our relatively long summer is exposed to moisture laden gales – now replete with everyday names. Today we’re enjoying ‘Storm Henry’ at a relatively balmy 12 degrees above zero (C).

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The result – my carefully seasoned, split and stacked firewood is shockingly wet! Almost 30% on this piece of oak chosen at random from the stack outside my front door. That’s a lot more water in the log than I’d like to have – 300g of water in a 1kg log and all of that has to be ‘boiled’ off up the chimney. That’s all energy not available to heat the house, resulting in a cooler stove and potentially more tar blocking up the chimney as inefficient combustion at cooler temperatures mixes volatile chemicals and moisture.

So what went wrong? Nothing other than our British ‘maritime’ climate. We just can’t do Norwegian Wood over here. It’s too warm and too moist. Wood is hygroscopic – in other words – it will absorb moisture from it’s environment. If the atmosphere is above zero (C) and moist then dry wood will become damp. There is an equilibrium moisture content, and at a few degrees (C) with the relative moisture content of air up to between  90 and 100% (the air is saturated with moisture) as it has been for months now. Then my air dried logs will be returning to somewhere over 20% and perhaps as high as 30% depending upon how quickly the moisture is absorbed and how long it stays moist.

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What can I do about it? Not much outside. With so much rain and overcast days there is little hope of using the sun to dry the wood. Even expensively (environmentally as well as financially) kiln dried firewood will become damp in this weather. The same applies to the net bags of logs left standing outside filling stations or garden centres. If they weren’t damp when they were delivered they will be by now.

All I can do is ensure that I take my logs into the house and give them a day or two beside the fire (but not too close of course) before I burn them.

By chopping my firewood into smaller sizes and letting the warmth run through them I can reduce the moisture content to below 20% which enables a more efficient combustion in the stove as well as reducing the moisture released up the chimney.

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So don’t forget to bring your logs inside at least a day or two before you need to burn them, chop them up good and small (you’ll get warm all over again) and run your stove hot enough for efficient burning.  But most of all I hope your logs are nice and dry wherever you are burning them this winter!

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that Scythes don’t come out much in the Winter months. So it was a pleasure to combine our winter Scythe Association meeting with reed cutting at Heacham Saltings on the North Norfolk coast.

DSCF1633Traditionally the reed is cut and gathered for thatching. For the Scythe to lay the reed where it can easily be gathered into bundles we attach a simple cradle made from a suitable rod of flexible fresh (green) wood like Willow or Hazel which helps to lay the reed all in the same direction in the windrow.

DSCF1642Saturday morning was bright but bitterly cold and getting down into the reed bed provided almost the only prospect of shelter as well as warmth through plenty of exercise. Our host Richard Brown led the way in and explained the work needed (the Saltings is managed under an environmental stewardship grant and mowing of blocks in the reed bed is a part of the conservation management).

DSCF1655It wasn’t long before we were all getting to grips with mowing the 6ft reeds.

DSCF1679The reed bed had already been drained down to allow us to mow the reeds but ditches, channels and pools of water remain and for those wearing long wellingtons or short waders it afforded the chance to experience some underwater mowing.

DSCF1657John Letts took the opportunity to bundle some of the mown reed.

DSCF1684But as the reed was being cut for conservation management rather than thatching most could be forked into piles at the edges of the bed.

DSCF1659Before too long our enthusiastic team of mowers had made good inroads into the bed and cleared enough reed to complete the task.

DSCF1660I’ve been making some traditional English steam bent shafts over the last year and this was my first change to try out one of my new snathes (on the right). I’d hurriedly fitted it out with a random assortment of ironwork and handgrips (nibs) on Thursday before travelling to Norfolk and was a little worried that it might not survive the encounter. In the event the scythe proved to be more equal to the task, as it’s little on the large and heavy side for reed mowing, though it’s not finished yet and needs plenty of tweaking to get it optimised.

DSCF1710Suitably warmed and exercised we retired to Richard’s beach house to take in the views over the Wash and for our formal Scythe Association winter meeting, a short affair followed by evening of long conversations fuelled by Simon’s excellent blue cheese, plenty of beer and I seem to remember that a bottle of my ‘Sloe Vodkin’ was involved as well.

DSCF1749On Sunday Richard has another block of reed for us to mow, this time at the other end of the saltings. An opportunity to blow away the cobwebs and finish the job.

DSCF1784All too soon the job was done and it was time to take my leave. Back to the real world. I love the work that I do, but I will carry with me the memory of the places I’ve been, things I’ve done and the people I’ve seen over the last three days. Thank you  – It’s been like a breath of fresh air to recharge my batteries in the middle of winter.

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      P1030471Two little pigs went to market……except the pigs weren’t so little any longer! In case you weren’t aware we’ve been keeping a couple of pigs. We were lucky to be offered the use of a small piece of ground, scrub woodland really, a short walk around the corner in Lynchmere where we live.

After 16 short weeks our two Oxford Sandy and Black’s aren’t piglets any more, they’re porkers. Porker is the name for a pig that’s reached a size big enough to eat as the joints make good pork. A bit larger and they are called baconers as there is enough meat and fat for good cuts of bacon. We’re hoping for a bit of bacon.

On Monday our first time keeping stock came to an end, except it’s as much the beginning as it is the end, we always planned it this way but it’s somehow different from the planning when you actually come to do it.

DSCF9859It’s hard to remember just how small  they were when they first arrived!  You wouldn’t want to be picking one up now – Alison estimated that they were 70 plus kg last week – and immensely strong.

DSCF9893-001and they were very cute as well !

DSCF9899There was  grass in the pen in those days! Digging is natural behaviour for pigs and they had ample scope digging some big holes in their pen – this was their first digging experience just a few seconds after arriving.

P1030290By the beginning of  this week it more resembled the Somme than a woodland glade both for the amount of mud and the depth of some of the craters they dug.

P1030425Even the pig ark was starting to take some damage. Not sure it would have taken much more abuse and we plan some reinforcements for the next inhabitants. Yes, I made the ark from some local larch and logs after advice from Graham (of Wildcroft rare breed farm in Puttenham where we got the pigs) that wooden arks are expensive to buy and they quickly get chewed and damaged so we thought we might as well make our own.

P1030455The Oxford Sandy and Black (OSB) is a traditional rare breed which is known for being placid and easy to keep. Good for first time keepers like us. It’s also  renowned for the quality of the meat making good pork and bacon as well – and let’s face it – this is all about the meat in the end no matter how cute they might be. This one was known as crackle (short for crackling) has the lop ears.

P1030454His brother Scratch (yes it’s short for Scratchings) had lop ears when he arrived but somewhere along the line developed a habit of waving his ears out horizontally – and acquired the optional name of Yoda because he did that thing with his ears.

P1030472We enjoyed their company and took a lot of pleasure from their inquisitive, gentle and always funloving natures but they are big boys now and it’s time to take them to market or in our case to Southern Traditional Meats near Henfield in West Sussex.

P1030476We wanted the final journey to be as stress free for the pigs – if not us – as we could make it. It’s a 30 mile journey and we needed to be sure that they would be comfortable in the trailer – and that we could get them into the trailer having little or no experience of this and having heard many horror stories of spending hours trying to get pigs into trailers. So we fed them in the trailer a couple of times before kitting it out with bedding and a water bucket for their journey.

This was always going to be the hardest part of the job. Alison has done all the hard work of the stock-keeping and has been the closest to the pigs so that makes it all the harder. But as we both realised – if you can’t bear to grow your own meat how can you buy meat from a supermarket shelf when you have little or no idea how the animals were treated.

In the event the final journey went with no complaints (I think that’s got to be the best you can say really) and we were very pleased with the quiet and calm in the pens at the abbattoir which were all occupied by rare breed pigs. I think we gave them the most contented short life that they could have wished for. I like to think that this will show in the quality of the meat.

We’re just about to find out and I’m going to get to make some bacon………

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DSCF7928-001My annual ‘blow away the cobwebs’ retreat takes me to the Gower Peninsula in South Wales for a couple of days. A chance to walk the cliffs and waters edge and see what the the winter has thrown onto the shore.

DSCF7916Not just about the coastline, though you are never far from it, Gower is criss-crossed by old ways running between little fields, ruined castles and standing stones on open moorland. As the sun rises higher through March it starts to creep into sunken paths it’s not seen since last Autumn. The wild garlic starts to grow, soon you’ll smell it.

DSCF7991I like to be there before it becomes crowded as it will be in the height of the summer. In March I have the beaches almost to myself – except for Oystercatchers, Gulls and the odd Shag in the water. ( In case you are not familiar with UK coastline I’d better point out that a Shag is a seabird very similar to a Cormorant. )

DSCF7963Then there are the cliffs. Scenery for which Gower is rightly famous. The stretch from Port Eynon to Rhossili is my favourite walk,  littered by headlands, narrow ledges, rocky inlets and caves – like  Goat’s Hole at Paviland – where the skeleton of the ‘Red Lady’ was discovered in the 19th century. Subsequently discovered to have been neither a lady nor red and 33,000 years old, you can easily leave the 21st Century behind as you walk towards the dragon like shape of the Worm’s Head at Rhossili.

 DSCF8045That’s helped by all the signs left from human habitation over centuries – drystone walls and limekilns lie mixed with the curved earth banks and ditches of prehistoric forts.

DSCF7947The mark of the 20th Century is not quite so well suited to the landscape. Unlike the drystone walls, limekilns, earth banks and ‘red ladies’  the mountains of plastic on the shore are not made from local materials and don’t blend into the landscape over the decades. Bio-degrading is a misnomer – they simply breakup into millions of small bits and pieces which are even harder to clean up and once small enough can enter the food chain. Somebody got here before me!  What used to be beachcombing has become beach-cleaning and every spring teams of volunteers work hard to remove as much as possible – good work! But it would be so much easier if we didn’t make and throw away so much unnecessary plastic in the first place.

DSCF8086Amonths of endless gales I managed to catch a couple of calmer spring days and as I write this blog I can hear the birds singing outside. Amazing how quickly you start to forget the wind, rain and floods once the sun comes out. The stonechat likes to sit right on top of the gorse scrub and ‘chat’ as I walk along – a very welcome reminder that Spring is on the way.

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Image0044Roundabout is a traditional hay meadow which hasn’t been ploughed for well over 20 years (though it’s the youngster amongst our fields as most haven’t been ploughed up since WWII). Without any chemicals or fertilisers the wildflowers are getting better each year. As the fertility of the field slowly reduces the wildflowers can compete better with the grasses and the right time to make hay is a tricky judgement – too early and you cut the annual flowers before they seed, too late and the grass becomes old and rank. So with an unusually good spell of weather in late July it means we can go ahead and make hay whilst the sun shines.

Well I did start cutting the field by hand. But let’s face it I’m not going to get a 10acre field mown with my scythe before the weather breaks. So after he’d had a quick go with my English Scythe Nigel went home and came back early in the morning with one of his mowers.

DSCF9964It’s a bit faster than I am – but then it’s got a lot more horses under the bonnet and they all need to be fed – but not with hay or cider.

DSCF9983Nigel went off to do some more mowing leaving me to turn the mown field which I managed to do with ‘Peter’ my little  Massey Ferguson 135 and the old Acrobat rake/turner. It’s a little short at 6ft to turn the rows from Nigel’s modern 8ft mower but I managed it with some careful concentration and the great thing about the Acrobat is that it’s not powered so I can potter up and down the field on tickover.

P1020017After a few days in the good weather the hay is ready and with Thunderstorms forecast for the evening Nigel came back to help me with the rowing up. In the 30+ degree heat it was great to be able to work the tractor at tickover and even if a little slower than Nigel’s tedder I managed to row up most of the field while Nigel went to fetch the baler.

DSCF0071-003A quick rest while Nigel starts the baling . We’re baling with small traditional square bales rather than the modern round and wrapped monsters.  But there is still a good market for these small bales as you can handle them without needing a loader and we’ll be selling them to local stables, graziers and small holders.

Slowly it dawns on us that that there are a lot more bales coming of this field than we’d expected. By the time Nigel finishes we have 830 bales spread over about 9 acres of the field. Oooops. We’re going to need some help to shift them before the thunderstorms arrive!

P1020045Luckily everyone seemed keen to join in with the haymaking – even with just a couple of hours of notice. And it rapidly turns into a giant game of It’s a Knock Out with Hay Bales!

P1020046Almost a full trailer load – but it’s tricky lifting the last bales while people are still standing on them!

P1020035That’s a very fine looking trailer I see there. Is it new? No – it’s got an old wooden frame but it does look like it’s freshly painted! Landrover Masai Red and Bronze Green if I’m not mistaken – goes very nicely with the tractor and ready just in time for the hay making. I like it when a plan comes together.

P1020036The team building the stacks are working at full speed as the bales come off the field on the trailers.

P1020039We somehow manage to fit in the odd delivery to local barns – in fact just about anywhere we can stash some more bales. These horses carried out some quality control while we unload into the barn – looks like they’re quite happy with the hay!

P1020041One last load off the field and we’ve managed to move 830 bales in just a few hours and it just started to rain gently as we shifted the last of the bales.

edontrailerWhat no bales?

P1020055Must be time for a party then.

P1020058Hard work – but there is something very satisfying about shifting and stacking hay bales – there is very little doubt about what you’ve achieved, you can see it, feel it, lift it, climb it, smell it and you can even try chewing it. It’s certainly very tangible. I think  everyone did a great job – well done all!  The cider certainly tasted good after all the work.

I think it’s great to be able to involve people in hay-making, after all it was very much a community event for centuries. But modern farming practices and machinery don’t allow people to join in very often. In fact they are designed to minimise the involvement of people, but as this field is being managed as a traditional hay meadow it seems appropriate to make it more of a traditional event.   I hope everyone will be back to do some more before long!

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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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The Winter Season is when we do most of the conservation work on the Lynchmere Commons. The volunteer gang has worked hard this season and despite the near continual rain and snow we’ve been very busy. Now the nesting season is suddenly in full swing (as it’s not snowing this week) we can stand back and admire all of the cutting, felling, burning, thinning, scraping, digging,filming, laying, fencing and mending we’ve been doing but before we do there is just time to fit in a little mowing.

We planted a community orchard a couple of years ago in a sheltered corner of one of the Ridgecap fields that adjoin the commons. These fields are traditional hay meadows and pastures, once the mainstay of every small farm but now very rare and endangered. This is mainly because without being ploughed up and reseeded with modern varieties of grass, and with no fertilisers and pesticides being applied the yield (in terms of grass) is far too low to pay for the monster machinery that now populates our farms and countryside. Likewise we’ve planted up the orchard with traditional apple varieties from Sussex and surrounding counties, all on large and traditional half-standard sized rootstocks  rather than the higher yielding and smaller bush varieties.

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The orchard is not grazed so we need to cut the grass by hand. Having been a rough corner of the meadow it’s a serious challenge and the first aim is to reduce the tussocks and remove the old thatch of dead plants ready for the new season.

With a little sunshine a tiny bit of coaching in technique with a scythe and a lot of enthusiasm it didn’t take long to get through the orchard – keeping the rakers busy. Andy is using one of my oversized hay rakes – it has a 32inch head,nearly 3 foot, and a 6ft handle which makes it harder to use but once you get used to it you cover a lot of ground. Both Andy and the rake seem to have survived the experience.

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With a good turnout (a promise of free food and drink is always a good thing) we had upto 9 scythes out mowing, enough for a team, with several Austrian Scythes a couple of English Scythes and Nick joined us with his original ‘Turk Scythe’. These were first imported from Europe around the 1970’s when manufacture of English scythes stopped. Very light in comparison to the English Scythe. This one has a classic Austrian style blade that we often use today but the handle or snathe is very interesting with it’s straight shaft and fixed handgrips. Very light but only suited to one size of user.

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I’m not sure that the scything and raking was the main attraction here, I rather think it was mainly just to work up an appetite for lunch! It was the last task of our winter work programme and so a bit of an end of term party as well as the nature of the work now changes through the summer season.

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A good job done. A little bit of exercise, good company and a lunch in the orchard, a nice way to get some fresh air. Of course the job could have been done with a strimmer – but it’s really not so much fun to stand and watch a strimmer, you can’t rake the grass off afterwards and with 9 mowers on the task  it was a really quick (if not completely proficient) job.

I find it thought provoking to reflect upon which is really the most efficient way of working, one mower with a petrol strimmer for a dayor two, and Allen Scythe for a few hours or several mowers with scythes and a few rakers and forkers for a couple of hours? This blog isn’t really the best place for discussing this so I’m in the process of opening up a new site ‘The Scythe Grinders Arms‘ to host a wider discussion of environmental issues and my pet rants.

If you live in the Haslemere area and like the idea of working on the Lynchmere Commons and the meadows now and then why not join in with the Volunteer working tasks – you can get more information via the Lynchmerecommons blogsite.

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