Bringing back the art of scything

Last week we attended an excellent scything workshop hosted by local community group Oxford Urban Wildlife Group and led by master scyther Ida Fabrizio. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the scythe, it’s a hand tool that’s been used since at least 500 BC to cut grass for haymaking, to manage weeds and to harvest grain crops. 

There are many parts of Europe where scything is still commonplace, but until recently in the UK, scythes had largely been replaced by powered machinery. Scything is now experiencing a revival and is starting to be used again for managing public parks and gardens, stately homes, wildlife reserves, meadows and allotments. There are even competitions to see what can mow a meadow faster: strimmers or scythes!

There are many reasons why scythes are making a comeback. Being a hand tool, they require no power and yet are highly efficient. If you know what you’re doing, using a scythe makes light work of cutting a lawn. 

As a human-powered tool, the scythe is ergonomic and designed not to put strain on the body when used correctly. During the course, our instructor Ida taught us how to use a scythe to avoid back strain: with a straight back and bent knees, shifting our weight from one leg to the other as we swung the scythe. We used Austrian scythes instead of English scythes, as they are more lightweight and can be adjusted according to the height of the person using it. 

Our instructor showing us the ropes before we had a go at scything the meadow.

Unlike using a strimmer, scything is also a quiet activity that won’t disturb the neighbours, and can be a way to manage land without disturbing wildlife habitats.

When we had a go ourselves, it was also a surprisingly calming activity. The repetitive motions and the need to focus on your movements in order to make the right cut, can put you in quite a mindful state where it becomes satisfying to make each swing and hear the grass being cut. Perhaps for this reason, some see scything as beneficial to our mental health, and it has even been taught as a therapeutic activity in psychiatric hospitals.

While it can be done as a solitary activity, the quiet nature of the scythe means people can chat and socialise at the same time. Traditionally, haymaking with scythes would have been done in groups. Our course leader Ida taught us a song that scythers would have sung together as they worked: 

It takes one man to mow me down my meadow,

It takes one man to mow me down my meadow,

It takes one man, one man and one more, 

It takes one man to mow me down my meadow, 

That grows before my door.

It takes two men…

It takes three men…

Of course, modern-day scythers might choose to switch up the lyrics for some of the verses – how aboutit takes one gal to mow me down my meadow”?

We loved the song, but were even more impressed when we heard why people would sing it. It didn’t just serve to keep people entertained as they worked, Ida explained. Traditionally, as the first verse began, the first row of scythers would start moving forward and cutting the meadow. Once the second verse began, it meant that the row of scythers behind them would be at a safe distance, and could begin moving forward and scything!

If you are keen to “get in the swing” of scything, check out the Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland (SABI). To see scything in action, take a look at this video by gardener Huw Edwards:

About Oxford Urban Wildlife Group (OUWG)

OUWG is a community group established by a group of community wildlife enthusiasts in 1988 with a vision to maintain and conserve wildlife in Oxford, and to help local people discover the city’s wildlife and wild places. Over the past 30 years, they have created and managed the Boundary Brook Nature Reserve, a three-acre wildlife haven in the heart of East Oxford featuring mixed woodland, pond, butterfly glades, and a demonstration wildlife garden. More information.

OUWG is a member of the Community Action Groups (CAG) Oxfordshire network, made up of almost 100 community groups working to make Oxfordshire a safer, fairer, greener, more sustainable place to live, work and visit. See here for more information and click here to sign up to their newsletter.

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