The scythe – a tool for our times

Logo: Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland

By Nicole Clough, The Joy of Scything

A woman using a long scythe in a field to cut grass
Nicole scything (L Tyrer)

A scything renaissance is underway! With many of us seeking greener, cleaner solutions, this tool is drawing a lot of attention and is making a strong comeback in the UK. As a teacher of scything, I have something of a reputation for raving about its merits, but not without justification. It’s a privilege to introduce others to this pleasurable, effective and ancient skill, watch as they master how the body and the scythe interact, and become smitten. Time and again I have seen the scythe revolutionise people’s lives.

The scythe has been weaving itself into my life for twenty odd years. When I first encountered one, as a Tudor history re-enactor, little did I know how it would enhance my life, inspire me, bring joy, connect me to amazing people and a new way of living…and, of course, accompany me through a glorious myriad of meadows, woods, heaths, fens, reedbeds, orchards, allotments and gardens.

Following my sixteenth century summers of scything (actually, being a woman, I was only permitted to rake and pitchfork), it was my travels in Romania which first showed me the scythe was not confined to history but was still very much in use by many people. To my traveller’s joy, I also observed that it was not at all remarkable to carry a scythe on public transport…something I would find myself doing some years later, to the bemusement and curiosity of my fellow Oxford commuters.

Not only are scythes not confined to history, but they are not restricted to men. Likely due to differences in vegetation, climate, topography, as well as culture, the development of the scythe on the continent resulted in a far lighter blade and snath (handle) than those developed and used in the British Isles. The heavier Anglo-American style of scythe was not ergonomic for the average woman’s strength, and got a bad reputation for ruining the backs of many men who wielded them. Over the course of the twentieth century, their usage in Britain lessened to the point where the last UK scythe manufacturer closed in the early eighties. This was not the case on the continent, where more lightweight scythes continue to be in production and use to this day.

Windrows of cut grass in a field
Cut grass lying in windrows (N Clough)

It is the lightweight Austrian and continental style scythes, in particular, which are the stars of this rebirth in the UK. Men and women, regardless of stature, can use them with ease and comfort, whether keeping on top of garden paths, mowing a whole meadow or racing against time in a scything competition. Whilst there are some key techniques, using a scythe can become quite personal; and with the rhythmic movements and the focus on the moment, many even regard it as a meditative practice.

The term ‘appropriate technology’ is certainly fitting to the use of the scythe within the ecological movement. The qualities of this tool allow the user to be sensitive to the wildlife we are trying to protect. We can hear the alarm calls of birds alerting us to a nearby nest, and therefore not disturb; we can see the movement of frogs inches ahead, and ‘stop the motor’ immediately, causing no harm; the grasshoppers spring away, ahead of the approaching scythe, to safe haven. The lack of logistics and paraphernalia make it a breeze to just pop out and mow, to target problem areas – that patch of nettles, or the long grasses shorting out the electric fence. It also permits us to take a steadier approach, therefore allowing wildlife time to adjust to the change in circumstances. In addition, the scythe does not shred or mulch as it slices, unlike some machinery – so much easier to collect and clear the cut vegetation, and again so much more sensitive to its inhabitants.

During my time teaching scything and working in the countryside conservation sector, I have witnessed the increase in popularity first hand. Large charity organisations, small voluntary groups, gardeners, smallholders and allotmenteers nationwide are choosing to pick up their scythes rather than fire up their mowers and strimmers. The positive reports and feedback are endless: being able to mow around seeding wildflowers, look out for wildlife, listen to the birdsong, talk to their companions, breathe fresh air, exercise gently, carry less kit, reduce their carbon footprint, spend less money…. It’s no wonder I’m an advocate with a reputation for raving about scything.

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Posted On: 21/06/2023

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