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How Austrian Scythes Changed My Life

by Simon Fairlie
The even mead that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, keksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.
Shakespeare, Henry V

"You can't imagine what an effectual remedy it is for every sort of foolishness."
Levin to his brother, after a day's mowing, in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

All flesh is grass. Your breakfast, whether it is composed of oats, cornflakes, ricecakes, toast, milk, butter, sugar, eggs, bacon, or sausages, will be grass, or derived from grass-fed creatures.

If you have a holding, hay is the most biodiverse product you are ever likely to produce on it. Unless you have a rye grass and clover ley, your hay is likely to contain between 20 and 100 different species. Some of them (for example bracken or ragwort will be undesirable), but provided there is a basic content of palatable grasses, and a measure of clover or other leguminosae , then the variety will add to the quality of the hay.

Grass is easy to produce in England's green and pleasant land. The wet, temperate, climate and sweet soils in the south and west make the UK one of the best countries in the world for grass and hay production. Grass just grows: the more you graze or mow it , the better it grows; and grazing and mowing, plus a light harrowing, is all you really need to do to it. Because grass is an ecosystem, not a species, it doesn't fall ill, even if you starve it of nutrients, it just changes in species mix.

A kilo of best quality dried hay has as much nutrients in it as half a kilo of grain. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you would prefer not to see the UK with a population of 200 million) humans can't digest grass, so in order to obtain its benefit we feed it to dairy or meat animals. In one sense this is inefficient, resulting in a loss of nutrients ranging between three to one, and ten to one. However since much of the remainder of the nutrients come out of the back end of the animal, there is an opportunity to move biomass from one place (the area grazed) to another (an area to be cultivated) with relatively little effort. (The other nutrients are expended either as movement or heat; these can sometimes be partially captured through the use of animal traction, or by living above one's animals.)

Vegan cultivators cut out the animal element of this cycle by incorporating grass, clover and other vegetable matter directly into the soil, as compost, mulch or green manure. This is more efficient in the sense that 100 per cent of the vegetation will go directly into the allocated patch of soil. However it can sometimes be labour intensive if it involves human or petrochemical energy to replace the macerative and digestive processes of the animal and to move nutrients from A to B (which a well designed animal system will do "on the hoof"). Non-animal systems cannot filter out weed seeds, so grass is preferably cut before it has gone to seed, which makes it harder to maintain a biodiverse meadow -- but if you don't have animals requiring a varied diet in winter there is no economic incentive to maintain a biodiverse meadow anyway. It is simpler and more productive just to have something like strips of clover in between cultivated beds; but they will still require mowing.

Fount of Goodness

At Tinkers Bubble we have been making hay, by hand, on the same two acre meadow for the last nine years. The grass has never been fertilized, though about six years ago we did winter sheep on it with bought-in hay, and this would have introduced some nutrients. Other than this, we have ceaselessly sucked the meadow of its nutrients, by feeding our animals on its grass and directing their manure onto our gardens and orchards. The meadow is a fount of goodness upon which the rest of the holding relies.

Over this period the meadow has improved very noticeably. Its yield increased in the first two years (it had previously been an unsuccessful young orchard) and has since stayed more or less constant. Over the years weeds such as dock and creeping buttercup have diminished, and creeping thistle has completely disappeared, though hogweed is becoming a problem. As the soil has become less rich in nitrogen, leguminosae , which obtain their nitrogen from the atmosphere, are advantaged, and red and white clovers, birdsfoot trefoil and vetches have colonized, thereby maintaining nitrogen levels for the other species.Of course we are watching the performance of the meadow, and at some point we may judge that it does need manuring or liming.

In summer the meadow is a diaspora of red, yellow and white flecks in a sea of misty green -- and it is alive with butterflies. There aren't any unusual flowers, nor is it a startlingly precious patch of biodiversity; but it was held up as an example of the sort of meadow conservation farmers should be aiming for on our local agricultural college's grassland management course. It is a joy to behold, and to eat: our hay is preferred by our animals to most hay that we buy in.

A Shallow Learning Curve

We do not use fossil fuel powered machinery at Tinkers Bubble, and for the first few years mowing the meadow by hand was a struggle. We battled with heavy old secondhand scythe-blades that we didn't know how to sharpen properly, attached to worm eaten handles. We hacked away at the grass like infuriated golfers who keep missing the ball , whereas a competent mower shaves the grass in a long, low, effortless sweep. We bought new English blades, made by Tyzack (now sold under the brand name Compass), constructed of stamped metal riveted to a rib, and broke several of them before we concluded that the rivets are not strong enough and are best reinforced by a dab of solder at each end of the blade. Scything was not a popular job -- and trying to persuade people to scythe was an even less enviable occupation.

All this began to change when we discovered our first Austrian scythe. About 20 years ago someone, possibly the self-sufficiency shop at Wells, was importing small Austrian scythes into England, and we picked up a couple of these in secondhand shops. Austrian scythe blades are hand-forged, wafer thin, to an elegant curve in all three dimensions which assists the cutting angle of the blade, prevents it digging into the ground, and makes it easier to sharpen at the correct angle.They are much lighter than the Anglo-American blades, and this in turn means that the snath (handle) can be lighter; handle and blade together are nearly half the weight of a typical English or American rig. Mowing with the Austrian scythes was more satisfying and less knackering -- though at 55 centimetres, the blades were annoyingly short for the purpose of mowing an open acre of grass.

A further improvement came when we discovered David Tresemer's The Scythe Book . The book begins:

"Years ago I bought a scythe at the local hardware store . . . to keep the dandelions, milkweed, lamb's quarters, couch grass, and soon from going to seed. I wielded my scythe a few hours and then hung it up. It was awkward, it left me sore, and the grasses laughed at my efforts by bending over and bobbing back up after the blade had passed. I concluded that our ancestors were made of stouter stuff than I am!

I learned later that the scythe I had used was the traditional 'American' type, having a heavy , bent ash snath and a hard steel blade. Five years ago, I was introduced by Eliot Coleman to the Austrian-style scythe. My first use of this scythe was in happy contrast to my earlier labours,. The experience was marked by the same observations anyone can make on discovering a good tool: it fits . . . it doesn't hurt . . . it works."

These were the same observations that we ourselves had made, and it was encouraging to see them confirmed in print. Since new scythes were unobtainable in the UK there was only one solution: go to Austria. The Austrian Trade Commission informed us that the Steyr Young Farmers were holding their scything competition, Steve Friend and I booked a coach to Austria, and some days later the Steyr Young Farmers were amazed to find two slightly eccentric looking Englishmen wandering into their annual knees-up. We watched in awe as young men with four foot scythe blades mowed 100 square metres of lush grass in about 3 minutes, and then collapsed in a heap (them not us). After 30 you're finished at that game, and older people, women, children and foreigners mowed 25 square metre blocks. Steve won the "International Cup", (hastily dug out from the back of a cupboard in the farmhouse) after coming first out of a field of one.

At the competition we were introduced to Rudi Schmid, managing director of Schröckenfux, Austria's largest scythe manufacturer. He offered to show us round the factory,at Rossleithen where scythe blades have been forged for nearly 500 years. The industry was started close to iron ore deposits and water power in the Middle Ages under the aegis of the Ottoman Empire, which is why the blades are sometimes known as Turk scythes. A few days later we arrived back in England with a bundle of scythes of different lengths.

Since then we have never looked back. We have learnt how to sharpen the blades better, and how to peen them (cold forge a worn blade to its original razor thinness, which is periodically necessary if you want to mow grass). Our mowing speed has doubled (though it is still nowhere near as fast as it could be), scything is now the most popular part of haymaking, and the problem is to find enough people to turn the hay. For that purpose we have just bought an old horse-drawn tedder.

Clearing Weeds

Haymaking is not the only purpose for which we use our scythes, and most people nowadays, like David Tresemer, buy a scythe for clearing weeds. We have three and a half acres of orchard-cum-grazing, which has been weed infested ever since we first bought it, and which requires topping three or four times a year. Topping three acres of weeds by hand is a fair task, and here too the lightness of the Austrian scythes has improved matters vastly.

In addition, there are all the areas around gardens, greenhouses, paths etc which require weed clearance, and again the nimbleness of the Austrian scythes makes it the tool of choice. When you see people in their gardens or paddocks waddling about, strimmer in hand, dressed as if they were off to fight for Uncle Sam, spewing out noise and fumes, and doing the job about half as fast as they could with a little scythe, you wonder whether the world hasn't gone totally mad.

If you are using an Austrian Scythe to clear weeds, here are a few tips:

(i) You are unlikely to damage a scythe in a clean hay meadow; but weeds and obstructions attract each other, so when clearing weeds you need to take care, and use a shorter blade. A longer blade is harder to aim precisely, its extremity travels at greater speed, and there is more leverage if the tip hits an obstacle, so it is altogether much more fragile than a short blade. For topping weeds on open ground a blade of 65-70 cm is probably best for a fit adult; in orchards 60-65cm; and where there are fences, tight corners and other obstructions 50-60cm. For haymaking, most experienced adults use a blade between 70 and 85 cm.

(ii)Do not use an Austrian scythe on weeds that were not mown in the previous year, as some, like burdock or young saplings could damage the blade.

(iii) Watch out for junk, logs, tree stumps and other potentially damaging stuff hidden in the weeds.

(iv) Keep a grade 2 scythe for areas that are potentially damaging, and to lend to people.

Scythes Like a Butterfly

The latest step in our Austrian scythe saga, is that a new edition of The Scythe Book has appeared with a 70 page addendum by Peter Vido. Whereas Tresemer is a keen amateur and historian of the scythe, Vido is a professional. He scythes 50 acres of meadow a year on his farm in New Brunswick, Canada. Our 2.5 acres at Tinkers Bubble pales into insignificance. Even Vido's 8 year old daughter can cut a nine feet wide swath, which is more than any of us can.

Vido's addendum is interesting, not only because he supplies a lot more technical information, but also because he disagrees with Tresemer on some points, and he has attitude. Vido is the Muhamed Ali of the scything world, while Tresemer is more of a Henry Cooper. But both of them, in their different ways, are eloquent about the poetry and magic of scything.

Vido finishes his addendum by proposing a co-operative network, in America and Europe, of people who "instead of just selling the scythe, would like learn how to use it well and , by means of workshops, pass the skill on to others". For the last 15 years nobody has even been selling Austrian scythes in the UK, let alone demonstrating them, so, in conjunction with Permaculture , I am now importing them for sale; but I'm still a long way away from using one well and am rather hoping that someone else will turn up who is capable of instructing us all in a lost art. It is time that the UK, one of the world's great grass-growing nations became, once again, one of the world's great scything nations.

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