When we arrived on Howle Hill in May 2013 we started restoring our field, which was then a sheep field of closely cropped grass. We began by digging into the turf and creating a vegetable bed, which we protected by rabbit proof fencing.
A few weeks later we realised that, without the sheep, the grass was growing beyond our control and that it would have to be dealt with. We didn’t want to use any petrol driven devices in our plot, we wanted to go the ecological route, so we thought about using a scythe. But where to get one and how to use it?
Whilst exploring this question online we came across Simon Fairlie and Monkton Wyld. Simon is the bees knees in scything and scythes and supplies a huge number to the UK market. At the time he was offering a “mini apprenticeship” in scything, i.e. come and stay a while, learn to scythe, to make hay, work hard to get his hay barn full, and at the end walk away with a brand new long bladed scythe and all the sharpening kit. So off Andrew went for a week of hard labour!
As it turned out it was a great holiday! For sure it was hard work, but in a lovely part of the country, with lovely people, all food included and sleeping in a cute old caravan in the corner under some trees. Andrew learned how to scythe, when to scythe and when not (Simon was obsessively looking at the weather forecast on various website, comparing them and then fretting some more before deciding to go for it), how to spread the grass out and then bring it into lines overnight, how to protect it against the imminent risks of rain and lastly how to carry huge amounts into the barn on his back using only a rope!
He also learned to scythe brambles and nettles using a shorter blade as well as how to sharpen a blade to get it to the perfect condition to cut grass and/or nettles etc. Basically this is done by peening the edge of the blade on an anvil with a hammer to make it so thin that it has to be sharp. After peening comes sharpening with a series of sharpening stones until the blade goes through the grass with ease. he has learned the importance of getting this right and the consequences of getting it wrong.
Scything is about three things.
- Timing is key because cutting fallen grasses is twice the work and avoiding rain is imperative to the drying process. Over the 4 years of practice he has honed (excuse the pun) his skills and every year it seems like he is learning the same lessons again but actually at a higher level of competence.
- Equipment condition is about having a super sharp blade to make the work more effortless, and keeping it sharp during the cutting is just as important. When the blade hits an ants nest the edge is dulled immediately and needs resharpening.
- Technique is about keeping the blade on the ground at all times to reduce the weight as well as keep a low cropping action, making a smooth swing of the body through the stroke and cutting only as much as is easy to manage.
We wait until mid July and when the wild flowers have started to seed we go about hay making. The act of haymaking clears the ground of the bulk of the grasses and flowers and allows light and air into the ground level, giving new life and vitality to what will grow again from now until next years haymaking. This promotes greater diversity of species. Each year we notice new and varied species of flowers and grasses, and although some of this is us noticing the new species it is a also that there are actually more. This year we have yellow flags and cornflowers which we haven’t seen before. In fact this year we have counted 70 different species in our acre. We also allow the cutting to lie on the ground as they dry, constantly turning to bring them to the sweet smell of hay and in doing so the seed drop out and propagate new swathes of growth. We have noticed a huge increase in the population of Ox-Eye daisies this year.
It takes about 8 hours to cut roughly 1 acre of ground and probably the same to turn, dry and bring in the harvest. Never ones to waste anything, least of all our efforts, we use an old caravan awning to bring the hay in. The awning is approximately 2 metres by 5 metres and we lay it out on the field and pile the hay all along it. Then we take one corner each and drag the whole thing to the hay rick corner. We then go to the other end and roll the hay into the pile using the awning like making a roulade in the kitchen!
So what do we use the hay for. Well firstly it’s a great way to refresh the growth of plants in the meadow, It serve as the carbon element in compost making and serves as a great insulator of tender crops like strawberries and young potatoes before the end of the frost season. Oh, and we use it to hide newly planted onion sets so that birds cannot see them and pull them out.
Why not come and learn more at Taste of Self Sufficiency.