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Biodiversity and the Scythe

As conventions on the subject of biodiversity proliferate around the world, the term is becoming somewhat of a buzzword. Not quite a cliché as for instance “sustainability” or “green”, yet within environmental circles a catchphrase nevertheless.

In this section we will feature examples of scythe use with the specific intent to sustain and/or increase the biodiversity within some of the grass-covered landscape. Surely many more groups and solo efforts around the world than we may ever learn about have incorporated the potential of this old tool into their respective conservation activities.

For instance, a program exists in Sweden, financially supported by the government, the participants in which are required to complete an instructional course on the use of the scythe. We do not yet have the official documents from which to collect the essence and share it with our readers. (It continues to be frustrating how long it takes–in this supposed “Age of Information”–to get, from many places, any response to inquiries, never mind actual answers to relatively simple questions.

 


Czech Republic

A project initiated by KOSENKA (a Czech association of nature conservationists) may well be the longest-standing example of specific employment of the scythe in preserving – and encouraging the return to the former level of – the biodiversity of flowering meadows. There are many pages of material documenting this well-organized effort. Considering the mountain of other work before us, it will take an unspecified while to prepare a concise report.

As a brief outline: Since 1980, members of Kosenka (with help from visiting non-members) have been mowing, processing into semi-dry hay and removing to storage the seasonal growth of 15 hectares of wildflower meadows, within two national parks located in the White Carpathian Mountain range in eastern Moravia (politically part of the Czech Republic).

The nine separate meadows are monitored individually so the changes in composition can be assessed more accurately. The most favourably responding parcel, for instance, showed a 40% increase in the number of species during just one four-year period (1996-1999)!

It takes the group (all volunteers) approximately two weeks of sustained work to complete the “brigada” (mowing party), during which time they live in a temporary camp. The 2006 season will be their 26th year, and as is the tradition it will take place between 1-16 July.

Here are a few photos of their meaningful “entertainment”.

 

 


Denmark

In September 2005 we received an encouraging letter from Henrik Jorgensen who introduced himself as “a biologist working with nature conservation and management for a national forest and nature agency”. Below are excerpts from the initial (and many follow-up) pages of communication.

(I highly recommend visiting the website ~link below~ and downloading the beautiful 64-colour-page URT booklet. As yet the text is only available in Danish; asking for versions in other languages may hasten the translating. The English one has already begun.)

In Henrik’s words:

It seems that you have very little, if any, information on what goes on in Denmark with respect to scything. There is in fact growing interest, and I hope you would like to learn a little about what goes on here.

On one hand, what is left of hand mowing today has reached the degenerate stage; probably even more so than in our neighbouring countries. Although there is a good perspective in promoting the scythe as a replacement for all those noisy and smelly tools that garden people use, this is still a country where our leading TeeVee gardening programme journalist claims that the scythe is too difficult to use and too physically demanding for modern people…

The slowly emerging scythe renaissance in Denmark so far focuses on voluntary nature management. The aim is to maintain and restore some of our most valuable refuges for natural plant and animal life, that have developed as the result of man’s activities since the iron age, where serious hay cutting for winter fodder began.

Haymeadows have, for instance, once covered almost 10% of the country, but today they are all but gone. I made an inventory last year and it seems that we only have about 500 hectares left with reasonably satisfying management. Only 12 small meadows of altogether 6 hectares are mown by volunteers with scythes, the rest are mown with different methods from small machinery to common farm tractors. This is all described in the URT booklet, a special issue of the magazine of the Danish Botanical Society, which I prepared about haymeadows and their management.

The purpose of the booklet should be seen as an effort to organize the remaining knowledge and the potential interest. I am distributing it free as widely as I can through the right people and organizations. It was printed right before the summer holidays and I can already note a good response, with more free copies being requested and several new mowers’ organizations in the planning.

To tell you the short story of our activities, in 1998 some of us started a “mowers association” and adopted a one-hectare forest meadow that had been under restoration by the local state forest district since 1996 (1996 predominantly motorscythe, 1997 and 1998 a traditional horse-drawn mowing machine was used).

Since 1999 we have scythed the meadow around July 1 and in more recent years again in September. At the main mowing (in July), children, women and men mow, rake and make into hay – all by hand – the maturing contents of “our” meadow. Afterwards we eat one of the local deer (who have become very fond of the same meadow) and quench our thirst with the excellent produce of our local microbrewery. I dare claim that it has got to be one of the best arrangements of its sort anywhere!

 

Some photos depicting the Danish style of nature conservation.

 

 


 

Although members of Kosenka have used only the scythe for cutting, other tools have been employed in this type of conservation work. For instance, the objective of the Living Highways Project in Wales is surely the same as Kosenka’s, but the group has apparently not yet considered the scythe seriously. The differences in methods of cutting and in how the resulting material is subsequently handled deserve a comprehensive evaluation, which will at some point appear on these pages.

Interim, here are a few more excerpts from Henrik Jorgensen’s letters. (As in the section above, we took the liberty to rearrange them, with his permission. Henrik is a prolific writer, and in addition to his keen observations as a biologist, he periodically diverts to subjects like the history of scythesmithing, technical aspects of snath and accessory design, methods of blade sharpening and, occasionally, the comparative quality of beer and its significance in folk culture.)

Some of his more scientific words:

Although haymeadows are man-made biotopes, they typically contain surprisingly rich plant and animal life. With few exceptions, those in Denmark have been abandoned and now grow tall, coarse vegetation or are turned into forest plantations of mostly conifers.

Experiments with restoration have shown that, with renewed hay cutting, it is possible to regain a remarkably high degree of biodiversity. In one example of a Danish forest meadow of less than one hectare that was abandoned shortly after World War II: after ten years of correct management it now hosts 144 species of vascular plants, compared to 70 species at the outset of restorative cutting (many of which were very scarce and clearly disappearing!)

In the zoological record of this meadow are 5 species of reptiles (the number known in Denmark), 7 species of amphibians, 18 species of damselflies and dragonflies and 23 species of butterflies. For instance, in his article “Butterflies of the Forest Meadow” (p.34 in URT), leading Danish lepidopterologist Michael Stoltze, who works for The Danish Society for Nature Conservation, states: “There is no doubt that restoration of haymeadows or even the judicious mowing of very small areas is highly beneficial to many of the most threatened Danish butterflies…. The reward for the restorative effort comes relatively fast because butterfly populations can sometimes react so quickly.”

The biodiversity of a meadow, it can be said, co-evolved within the old system of peasant agriculture. The fine-tuning of details took many centuries, but at some point in history the “community” functioned harmoniously in rhythm with the seasons. The banquet of pollen and nectar coincided with its need in the life cycles of insects and in turn the full bloom of the flowering plants dictated the hay-harvesting schedules of farmers. The birds mated in patterns which assured that their offspring were ready to leave the nest by the time the men’s scythes came to do their task.

But the changes of modernization within the last fifty years were simply too abrupt to give all organisms a chance to re-adapt. To obtain the highest protein content of the forage, farmers were advised to cut their fields much earlier in the season, at 50% or even 10% bloom; as a result many species could no longer make viable seed nor many young birds reach the fledgling stage before the machinery arrived on the scene… The insects that evolved to pollinate the late blooming flowers were deprived of their nourishment and in turn reduced a food source of birds, lizards and frogs. Many links in an old chain were gradually broken.

The tenacious species remained to dominate the niches; the others disappeared or went into “hiding”, apparently to await conditions favourable to their genetic framework. Namely, numerous examples of biodiversity restoration have now shown that when even a partial system of previous “management” is applied to those areas, a portion of the former occupants, as if by magic, begin to reappear. Such results are already encouraging, although the methods used in many cases could, in my view, be significantly improved. The largest disparity – and the most difficult one to solve on a broad scale – concerns the specific tools chosen by the managers of some of these projects. Many apparently have not yet considered the scythe as a feasible cutting option, even though it is undoubtedly the most accurate replica, and one for which virtually every machine designed so far is an inadequate substitute. The difference in their respective effect is greater than readily meets the eye.

For a brief discussion of this subject I’d like to use some of Henrik Jorgensen’s material and then take the matter a little further.

Because the flail-type or rotary mowers have replaced a large percentage of the previously common reciprocating knife mowers (referred to in North America as “sicklebar”), they may be more readily available and chosen simply for that reason. But as Henrik correctly points out, “they make a very irregular, ragged cut” and refers to his diagram (below) as “a picture worth a thousand words”.

 

He further comments: “Such a wound increases evaporating surfaces, and the drying out of the plant (along with the probability of attack by diseases) is greatly increased.” (For a deeper level of the concern expressed above, the more courageous readers may refer to the natural-energy-related theses of Viktor Schauberger.)

“The cut-off portion of the vegetation is also shredded or chopped finer than it once was, thereby decreasing the chances of any after-maturation of seeds, not to mention the survival of animal life. When these types of machines are used specifically for purposes of ‘restorative mowing’, the shredded material is often not removed. Left on the ground it first suffocates a portion of the regrowth and then acts as a fertilizer which is taken advantage of by certain species more than others, thereby favouring their dominance.

“In instances where the cut forage is made use of as animal feed, it is, by the modern methods, usually blown directly onto the wagon or wrapped in plastic after only a short wilting period takes place. In both cases the seeds of plants and the eggs, larvae and pupae of insects are clearly not left with many possibilities of survival.

“The application of rotary mowers and string trimmers along with the speedy harvesting methods is tolerated by relatively few species of plants and insects (and therefore has a ‘monotonizing’ effect on the diversity of life in a meadow).”

I agree with everything he says so far, though now we get into more choppy waters:

“It should be pointed out, however, that these tools are not without justification in nature management. On the contrary, the initial mowing of old and coarse vegetation, often with bushes and young trees, is best done by crushing with a flail-mower or by brush cutting. The unwanted vegetation is hereby hampered and tufts, branches, stones etc. that can be harmful to the finer mowing equipment are discovered. Since especially strong and robust flail-mowers can be fitted on light, terrain-friendly machines (two- and four-wheel-drive alpine tractors etc.) they can thus make way for the continued management with cutting/clipping tools.”

It is the statement “…best done by crushing with a flail-mower or by brush cutting” that inspired much of the following “argument”. Henrik’s years of involvement with restoration endeavours and the fact that he himself is a scythe user makes me think that he can’t be really serious about the “best done” part. Indeed, on pages 28 and 29 of the URT booklet there are photos of people doing the kind of manual labour that some other managers of restoration projects may have hired a brush cutter for. He possibly wasn’t making a theoretical comparison between hand-powered and motorized tools, but as a professional is expected to be realistic. A portion of the readers may not, after all, be quite ready to “swallow the scythe blade”, or perspire much in order to assure that no bird, snake, frog or toad is made into mincemeat…

I, on the other hand, as an idealist and a farmer (with Masanobu Fukuoka’s kind of tendencies), can afford to rock the established thinking more vigorously, and so I will… In this specific case the notions are: a) we can no longer afford to do many things by hand, and/or b) that machines can do the job better, and, of course, c) always faster.

In the line of work this discussion is concerned with, the rationalization of rotary mowers, or for that matter any other grass-cutting machines, lies only in the speed at which they can work. Moreover, in certain instances of an area’s size and/or terrain, the mechanical alternatives to the scythe are not always faster. (For an example read this note )

The time element is admittedly an issue, because the areas that need immediate attention are so numerous and the people able and willing to swing the scythe with competence so few. Consequently, until we increase the number of hand mowers by a large factor (which is precisely the intent of the Co-operative Scythe Network), motorized cutters have their merit. But as for doing the job of restorative mowing better…?

Even in “old and coarse vegetation, bushes and trees”, I can do a neater job using only a few hand tools in succession. Yes, it would take more time, but when I was done, Henrik could mow it with his scythe the second time relatively quickly and without risking damage to the blade, something he couldn’t do after the brush-cutter was done with the rough area. A rotary brush-cutter in fact makes matters worse if the scythe is to be used thereafter, though not if the subsequent cutting is done with a very heavy-duty sicklebar mower.

But apart from the frequently-discussed secondary costs of operating the machines (depletion of resources, air pollution and more), there is another insidious side effect of the mechanical cutter’s “advantage” which most people seem unaware of and which Henrik already alluded to above (“…the eggs, larvae and pupae of insects are clearly not left with many possibilities of survival”.) More than just the fate of the insects is at stake.

In a study conducted in Poland, dead and wounded frogs and toads of four species were carefully counted on grassed plots cut with different sorts of mowing machines. Casualties ranged between 5% and 34% of the total population, the lower number in areas cut by the least destructive of the machines and the higher by the rotary mowers. Though toads, which tend to press themselves low to the ground in times of perceived danger, reduce the averages, the casualties of the leaping species of frog were as high as 59%. This was after only one mowing! The overall resilience of nature notwithstanding, no single form of life is exempt from tolerance limits…

Based on similar investigations, researchers in Germany concluded that the direct physical injuries and deaths caused to amphibians by grass-cutting machinery has become the number-one cause for their alarmingly diminished numbers and possibly exceeds the damage inflicted by pesticides and by traffic on roads. They felt that the implementing of pesticide regulations or the building of costly “frog crossings” under highways will prove to be an expenditure in vain unless the equipment-related challenge is also addressed seriously and partly solved.

As an important food source for other amphibians, mammals and birds, frogs are but one of the many links in the already stressed chain of life. That the numbers of storks have diminished in proportion to the scarcity of frogs may not be so bad if indeed the storks were the ones who brought the human babies to the overpopulated earth. Myths aside, we are just beginning to really grasp that the species cannot exist on its own. But in exactly what order are the “lesser” organisms important to our long-term survival is yet to be fully understood. On that note, a reflection of a homesteader in the Czech Republic may be fitting here:

“…then, let every wise man blow the dust and clean the rust from his grandfather’s old blade and grasp that which gives life firmly with both hands, to both symbolically and physically take responsibility for the direction of humanity’s path and the means by which he harvests the bounty of Nature and thereby nourishes the souls under his care.”

 

The advantages of the scythe as a tool used in biodiversity restoration projects

(This is meant as a partial summary or a follow-up to the previous pages and disregards, for now, the ecological cost of using machines.)

In brief, the use of the scythe:
a) is far more life-friendly in general
b) allows a high degree of selectiveness (as to which plants are cut and which are left)
c) brings the users in closer contact with the life of meadows – especially pertinent if young people also take part in the projects.

To expound a little on each point:

Hand mowing is undoubtedly the least disturbing of all the grass-cutting methods. Since the work is quiet and relatively slow, one is prone to develop an instinct for many subtle signs and will notice for instance if parents of fledgling birds are alarmed because the young are hiding in the grass nearby. In such a case, a compassionate mower would proceed with extra attention or move temporarily into another area. Even still-active nests can be discovered in this manner and mowed around, leaving an adequate buffer zone.

With wasp and hornet nests this happens “inevitably”, because as one nears, the lively occupants come out to let the mower know to “take it easy. Consequently, some of our fields end up with small uncut patches, the seasonal homes of those stinging insects. I trim them usually in early October, when the queen has found her winter resort and the rest of her summer’s crew died as they do every year in this climate zone. I find untold mouse nests, revealed only when the scythe blade exposes them, and cover them with the cut grass, marking the spot so that as we spread and rake the hay it is left undisturbed. Mice are very devoted parents and usually return to care for their young.

Yes, I have once or twice nicked a toad and on occasion wounded a garter snake. These are rare occurrences, a far cry from what a rotary mower would have done with them. The bumblebees may complain at being suddenly moved over into a windrow while sipping nectar, but they can depart unscathed. At times they actually continue working the already-cut flowers, apparently undisturbed. But I would not want to be a butterfly or a bee in the path of a rapidly-advancing flail- or rotary-type mower.

I’d like to start the second point with an excerpt from a poem by Robert Frost:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe has spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe has bared.

The mower in the dew has loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

This is a very apt description of what many mowers of old did with a scythe, but don’t or couldn’t perform if operating a machine – even the old-fashioned sicklebar pulled by horses. I know this because I “regressed” from cutting hayfields with the most up-to-date machines (for three seasons), then using horses and a sicklebar mower (for 20 seasons) and finally settling on the humble scythe for the last ten…

As Frost expressed, it is quite “natural”, when one has a good scythe, to use it in a discriminating and selective manner. With a little practice, the 2 cm difference between the stem of a plant you wish to leave or one you choose to cut can become an act ofplayfulness with a purpose. Tufts or individual stems of invasive species can be removed in this manner and the desirable ones left growing. Whether our specific selectivity is best for the whole we can never be sure, but the hand mower is inspired to more awareness and consideration.

Although various aspects of the third point justifying the scythe have already been covered above, I wish to add another thought.

One reason of Kosenka’s specific approach to the preservation of biodiversity (which includes scything of the meadows) is that it puts many young people in touch with the living substance of Nature. The evidence is mounting that the “virtual world” of T.V., videos or the Internet, even the nature-oriented portion, is far from an adequate educator if one is to grasp what ecology is really all about. The actual aroma of wilting grass, the camaraderie of friends and neighbours working together amid the sounds of birds and insects– these are real.

Had, for the duration of their project (25 years!), Kosenka’s think-tank chosen to employ even the most benign of mowing machines to cut those 15 hectares, many people would have missed a deeply meaningful experience… The organization’s year-round program includes other activities for the upcoming generation, because they realize that today’s children are the wise folks of the future. Without their “right” attitudes the world as we know it may be doomed…

The only challenge I see in this regard — or perhaps it is more of a question– “Will these youngsters – who seem to take to the motorized and electronic toys in their lives as naturally as Genghis Khan’s children may have taken to a horse? Will they learn to use a tool which millions of unschooled peasants knew how to use so well?” Interim, the question falls into our collective lap. As parents, can we learn to use the scythe as an inspirational example?

 

Feb. 2006