Heart of Durham Volunteers Love Scything

Anne Porter Heart of Durham, News

Scything ….A little bit of history

The scythe, as old as the Romans (and some), is a specially adapted tool used for cutting vegetation right down to ground level. Originally designed for cutting meadows, its popularity, as a tool for farmers, rose with the numbers of animals  being kept. More animals required greater amounts of straw for bedding and food and so crops like oats,  barley and other grains needed to be cut as close to the ground as possible in order to conserve as much of the valuable straw as possible. The scythe proved to be a far more efficient tool for harvesting these crops, compared to the widely used sickle, and as a result the scythe became the most widely used tool for harvesting throughout the world.

Image result for scything

But not all was good

The popularity of the scythe over the sickle in England had a detrimental effect on the marginalization of women  in agriculture.  Mowing, as well as being highly skilled,  was regarded as physically demanding work, it was highly paid and quickly become monopolised by men. At haymaking  women and boys would do the raking and turning, while  men would mow.  It was when the scythe took over as a means of  harvesting corn that it became particularly injurious to  women’s interests; grain harvesting was originally a female-dominated activity, traditionally cut with a sickle. As  the scythe gradually replaced the sickle in the harvest,  women found themselves relegated to lower paid jobs such as raking and tying. Once mechanisation was  introduced, women found themselves excluded completely.

Thank goodness all that has changed!

An Austrian ditch blade

Scything is a lot lighter and easier now.

The resurgence of interest in scything today is largely due to the promotion of Austrian made scythes, a lighter, nimbler and more elegantly formed version of  the old  traditional heavy and cumbersome English scythes. The Austrian blades and ash snaths are light weight making them more efficient and a pleasure to use.

The snath and handle of the scyth is made of ash giving it a wonderful tactile property


Volunteers scything

The Heart of Durham Project is using scythes for grassland management on Northumbrian Water land assets and it is becoming very popular amongst the volunteers who work for the project.

Sharpening the blade

With seven scythes more volunteers can now actively take part in the cutting of grassland habitats, making it more inclusive and enjoyable.

A petrol brush cutter is a noisy affair

Compared to petrol-driven brush cutters the only sound from a scythe is the swish of the grass as it falls, there are no fumes, no fuel costs. The scythe is more environmentally friendly and much less intrusive on wildlife. All the volunteers are unanimous in their agreement;

” Grassland management is a much nicer activity without the noise of the machine”

“we can hear the birds sing”

” It does the job”

“We can get more done as there are more of us cutting”

“We can get closer to tree guards without worrying that we will split them”

“It is very satisfying”

It is a far more sociable activity allowing chat between the volunteers and it also promotes interaction with the public who have always a tale to tell about their grandfathers …”using one of them!”

The only problem the Heart of Durham Project has with scything is that volunteers need to rest and need feeding but, hey ho, we cannot have everything!

A fuel restock for the scythers

Anne Porter

Anne Porter initially joined the Heart of Durham project as a volunteer, helping to carry out adder surveys on an 8-week placement as part of a post-graduate degree in Environmental Management. Anne’s dedication and enthusiasm for her work continues to inspire people of all ages to get involved nature conservation.