Scything for nature conservation

posted in: Cornwall Wildlife Groups | 0

Down the lane we went between high hedges. It was late August, a time when many flowers have turned to fluffy, scruffy seedheads, many fruits are still ripening and leaves have darkened and lost their translucent shine. We took the narrow path around the field as instructed by Peter Kent, Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Nature Reserves Manager for East Cornwall. Although my son, his friend and I had met amidst the concrete of central Plymouth and had only just left urban Saltash, we already felt as if we were miles away from town. Finally, the path led through some heavy-leaved trees and there they were. We came across a setup for a tea break in the shade under the boughs, complete with mugs, teabags, flasks and chocolate biscuits. Beyond that was a smallish hayfield on a steep slope down to the Lynher estuary, bathed in the heat of August’s sunglow.

We came across a hayfield above the estuary
We came across a hayfield above the estuary

All down the field, people were working as if they belonged to a past century, sweeping long wooden-handled scythes through the tall grass and carrying bundles of pale, dry hay on pitchforks. There were men and women, youngish and not so youngish, like the people from a hamlet or an extended family in olden times. They all seemed to be enjoying the physical work under the expert eye of work party leader David May. In fact, they weren’t locals at all, but conservation volunteers from all around Cornwall – as far afield as Bude,  St Austell and Truro.

Some of the volunteer crew at work
Some of the volunteer crew at work
Scything in action in the sunshine
A scenic place to visit and get close to nature on a sunny day

My own little party was an unconventional looking bunch, consisting of me (a small woman carrying a camera and a notebook) accompanied by my student son Ross and his Polish friend Shirral, both looking quite Bohemian and a little medieval. They had been travelling across Europe, from Prague where Ross had been at university to north Poland and the Slavic seaside, then on to Berlin, where beautiful parkland has replaced no-man’s land around the Wall, then to picturesque Freiburg in south-west Germany and back to Poland again before setting off for Cornwall the slow way.

As well as collecting the long-lost wanderers, I had an assignment that morning, as a nature conservation blogger. The group thought we ought to help with the hay harvest since we were there, and so we began raking with the easiest tools – the hay forks. As our new colleagues swept swathes through the dry grass stems with the scythes, we forked up the hay that was lying on the ground and carried it across to the edge of the field. The bundles of hay held together on the long-handled forks remarkably well, and it was lightweight too. We were able to carry quite a large load easily.

One of the keen volunteers with a forkful of hay
One of the keen volunteers with a forkful of hay
Close-up of a scythe
Close-up of a scythe
Raking the dry cut grass
Raking the dry cut grass

Historically, the cut hay was used to feed livestock through the winter – a way to farm sustainably before cattle feeds, haylage and silage were available. As there were no cattle here, we simply piled the hay in the hedges along the field margin to provide extra wildlife habitat.

Thistle-shaped flowers like this attract bumblebees to meadows
Thistle-shaped flowers like this attract bumblebees to meadows
Tormentil (left and right) and birdsfoot trefoil (centre) are found in the meadows of south-east Cornwall
Tormentil (left and right) and birdsfoot trefoil (centre) are found in the meadows of south-east Cornwall
Skipper butterflies thrive in the long grass of flower-rich meadows
Skipper butterflies thrive in the long grass of flower-rich meadows

The scything and forking regime helps the sort of wildlife that thrived on hay meadows through many centuries of rural agriculture until 20th century demands led to 97% of the meadows being ploughed away. Drastic wartime measures to grow food, utilising more advanced farm machinery and liberal additions of manufactured chemical treatments all came together to cause drastic changes over a few short decades.

As David explained, whereas silage is cut earlier and more frequently, low-intensity hay cuts result in a rich mixture of flowers and seeding plants. I have read that meadows can host up to 45 plant species per square metre. The lack of chemical fertiliser use allows the diverse mixture of plants to develop – a colourful sight in spring and summer. The flowering plants are of huge importance to our declining insect populations, which in turn are important for the creatures that eat them. As well as the nectar and pollen from flowers, insects need native plants for their larvae to eat. Hay meadows also provide seed for many seed-eating birds such as finches, and small mammals like the dormouse, harvest mouse, wood mouse and field vole.

Scabious
Burnet moths thrive in meadows, their caterpillars feeding on clovers and vetches and pupating on grass stems
Burnet moths thrive in meadows, their caterpillars feeding on clovers and vetches and pupating on grass stems
Traditional meadows provide a plentiful supply of mice and voles for barn owls to hunt
Traditional meadows provide a plentiful supply of mice and voles for barn owls to hunt

As traditional hay meadows like the one in which we found ourselves are now so rare, they are much prized by wildlife organisations. Although we were on farmland, ‘our’ meadow is now part of Churchtown Farm Community Nature Reserve, managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust (see www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves/churchtown-farm-nature-reserve ). The reserve lies within the Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and is positioned between the rivers Tamar and Lynher as well as Forder Creek. It includes grassland, mudflats, wetland, woodland, and disused quarries as well as farmland. This is fantastic for the people of Saltash and their visitors, as they have the opportunity to seek out these habitats for free and enjoy the flowers, butterflies and bees of the meadows each summer, not to mention the ground-nesting birds including skylarks. The sparkling waterways below, and the hills in the surrounding countryside are stunningly beautiful at any time of year, and there is always wildlife to be seen and heard.

A Wildlife Group guided walk at Churchtown Farm Community Nature Reserve in April, led by East Cornwall Nature Reserves Manager Peter Kent
A Wildlife Group guided walk at Churchtown Farm Community Nature Reserve in April, led by East Cornwall Nature Reserves Manager Peter Kent
View from the reserve in April
View from the reserve in April
Launceston Area Parish Wildlife Group on the shore of the estuary in April
Launceston Area Parish Wildlife Group on the shore of the estuary in April

Once some sort of excavation work had finished across the estuary, the only evidence of modern life, other than a distant electricity line, was the occasional passenger train whooshing by on the other side of the hedge.

View across the water in April
View across the water in April

We all stopped for lunch, a time in which we felt the sense of true camaraderie within the group, despite the variation in ages and backgrounds. The conversation was extremely interesting. It’s surprising what interests we found we had in common. That was a main benefit mentioned by members of the group, aside from the healthy exercise and the fresh air and nature. Stuart, one of the team, said about volunteering, “One of the most important things is how sociable it is. We enjoy the coffee breaks. And it’s so peaceful, as there are no power tools.” Someone else added: “You get to see places you wouldn’t normally get to see and you network with others.”

Lunch break for the hay harvesters – a chance for a good chat
Lunch break for the hay harvesters – a chance for a good chat

After lunch, Ross, Shirral and I were taught about the scythes. Ours were Austrian, with the straight, wooden handle (snath) in different sizes and adjustable to suit people of different stature, with hand-holds along the main pole and a curved blade at the bottom.  David demonstrated how a blade is honed  with the sweeping motion of a simple whetstone along one edge.  Then the volunteer gets to work, keeping the blade ahead of them and close to the ground, with a flat and even rather than upward stroke to cut through thick tussocks. The grass was tall, crispy-pale and dry, with a few late flowers showing their heads here and there. As they were sliced, the strands fell neatly together across the sward. If the meadow had been cut more regularly, the job would have been easier, with a more even growth and fewer thick clumps, but no doubt the grass-eating local voles and their owl predators were quite happy with the tussocks.

A lesson on scythes and scything for the newcomers
A lesson on scythes and scything for the newcomers
The scythes come in different lengths to suit all statures
The scythes come in different lengths to suit all statures
Looking after the blade
Looking after the blade
Scythe maintenance lesson from David May
Scythe maintenance lesson from David May

David made the whole scything process look effortless, but some of us newcomers required a bit of extra instruction to keep the blade cutting through the stems effectively. Once you got the rhythm going, it was remarkably satisfying and not too strenuous to cut quite large patches. We worked our way across the field in a long line, being careful not to get too close to each other, as those blades were sharp! As my son is called Ross (although I don’t think the novel set in Cornwall was our inspiration when naming him) I did suggest he took his top off for ‘Poldarkian’ effect.

Getting the hang of it
Getting the hang of it
One of the regular volunteers making a clean sweep of it

The afternoon flew by and although the sky and the estuary below were still bright and blue, it was getting towards the time to stop, because some of the crew had a long journey back to distant parts of Cornwall. It was time for most of us to put down the scythes and rake. David stressed how important it was not to leave the fields covered with cut hay. Lots of soggy, dying vegetation lying around would lead to unwanted fertilisation of the soil and a proliferation of coarser grasses. This would mean less diversity of seeds and flowers for wildlife. By raking the hay and putting it to one side, seeds were falling to the ground, to benefit seed-eating birds and animals and to grow flowers for next year, and the nutrients were being removed so that strong grasses would not dominate.

Learning to scythe under the watchful eye of David May
Learning to scythe under the watchful eye of David May

Ideally, hay fields are grazed in spring, to control strong, weedy species, to trample and provide barer or uneven patches of ground that some plants prefer, to provide dung here and there for a bit of natural fertility that some other plants and insects prefer, and to keep strong grasses nibbled and trodden short so that other species can grow amongst them and wildlife can access worms and other prey species on and in the ground.

David removing the cut hay from the field – an essential job
David removing the cut hay from the field – an essential job
I found an old harvest mouse nest in the cut grass. Europe's smallest rodent, the harvest mouse is a very special hayfield inhabitant
I found an old harvest mouse nest in the cut grass. Europe’s smallest rodent, the harvest mouse is a very special hayfield inhabitant

Sadly, there is only one scything day a year at Churchtown Farm Community Nature Reserve at the moment, although there is a Friends of Churchtown Farm Group who do good work cleaning and maintaining the reserve and organising walks and events. It would be great if more local people felt the urge to roll their sleeves up and manage the land for wildlife. It’s not all about scything – you’ll learn about scrub management, hedge repairing and much more. For more about this particular nature reserve, see www.churchtownfarm.saltash.website/ and www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves/churchtown-farm-nature-reserve

Late August view from Churchtown Farm Community Nature Reserve

The conservation volunteer group we met are known, collectively, as the Wild Allet Volunteers cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/volunteering-opportunities/wild-allet-volunteering-wednesdays. They are based in mid-Cornwall but also cross over with different volunteer organisations. There is a Wild Penwith group in the far west for example, and a Wild Cober group too. These are part of the Upstream Thinking initiative, funded by South West Water and led by Cornwall Wildlife Trust with partners. (See www.upstreamthinking.org for an overview of the project across the South West.) The scheme works with hundreds of farmers across Cornwall (and beyond) to encourage good practice for long-term food production and a healthy ecosystem. The idea is also to benefit wildlife in fields and in rivers, preventing flooding and soil and fertiliser, and storing carbon in healthy soils.

I was delighted to hear that overlap is encouraged between the conservation volunteers linked to Cornwall Wildlife Trust and other volunteer groups including the National Trust, Butterfly Conservation, and Cornwall Council helpers. Diverse opportunities for networking have included volunteers joining the crew of “Happy Return”, an authentic Mount’s Bay fishing lugger at Penzance (www.mbla.co.uk), while members of the community group at The Leach Pottery, St. Ives ( www.leachpottery.com) were invited to utilise one of the many, conservation task, winter bonfires to fire their raku pottery, with great effect! The more people cooperate, the better the result and the experience too.

If you have been inspired by this blog and would like to join a group of conservation volunteers, a good place to start is to contact David May, who runs the Wild Allet volunteers and has many contacts with other groups around Cornwall. You can email him at david.may@cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk or go to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust website www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk for further information about local groups. Also visit www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/volunteer if you would like to join in with some practical conservation or help in any other way.

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