Scything with Simon Fairlie

Simon Fairlie holding a scythe

Simon Fairlie holding a scythe

Learning how to use a scythe has been something on the to do list for a couple of years now, ever since hearing Simon Fairlie enthuse about them at a course I attended that he was leading on low impact smallholding. Unfortunately life and other projects got in the way until during the summer I read a great blog post by Paul Kingsnorth on the very same subject.

Fresh with enthusiasm I quickly found Simon’s site and was pleasantly surprised to see that he’s now making a living by selling scythes and giving courses. I immediately booked myself onto the next course that I could make.

Fast forward to the middle of September and I find myself at a community on the Dorset/Devon borders called Monkton Wyld Court. Simon has his shop here and we spent the next 2 days outside in his small yard learning all about Scything.

Firstly we discussed the sociology and history of scything and how large scale farming in the UK mainly killed the use of the tool whereas in countries where there was still a good degree of smaller scale agriculture, its use prevailed right up to the present day.

There was a lot of detail around the blades (heavy American/English vs. light Austrian) and the importance of having the handle (snathe) correctly set for the operator’s height. Failure to have the correct snathe set-up and the blade at the wrong angles would quickly lead to back ache, frustration and poor mowing.

I arrived at the course fully expecting to be soon hacking away at weeds

and things with a sharp blade on the end of a long stick.  What I had not expected is that within minutes of instruction on the actual use of the tool I would be mowing grass, on a neat lawn, at a decent clip down to a level I’m used to with a lawn mower.

Whilst technique is obviously important – and I admit I did dig the blade into said neat lawn on a few occasions – it’s also all about the set-up and the sharpness. Every few minutes we’d stop and pass a stone along the blade to bring the edge back up but even after only an hour or two the stone was starting to have less of an effect. At this point we learned how to ‘Peen’ (cold forge) the blade which is where using a flat hammer struck against the blade on a small anvil we drew the blade back out to a very thin sharp edge. this was quite fiddly and will take some practice out in the field to get right but it was not particularly difficult and we soon has sharp blades again.

Various Austrian scythe blades

An illuminating part of the course was haymaking. Firstly we talked about yield and the merits of rotating between pasture and meadow. We then went through the differences between silage and hay, how labour intensive haymaking can be but that conversely, how it is still possible on a small scale to create enough hay in a few acres to keep 2 dairy cows going through the winter (note these two cows give the community all of their milk and cheese). I was particularely interested in the frame used by Simon to stack the grass on to dry which is so effective that even should it rain – an occurrence that I had though up to then would ruin a harvest – the majority just runs off onto the ground.

Since attending the course I’ve so far managed to mow some of the lawn and made short work of a nettle patch. It’s now obvious to me that with some futher practice I’ll soon be as quick as the lawnmower without the need for any fuel (other than maybe a cheese sandwich) or complex servicing.

If you manage some land and you’re looking at a cheap and simple alternative to a lawnmower or strimmer then I’d highly recommend trying a scythe out. Assuming it’s correctly set-up for you not only will you be saving money but you’ll get fitter in the process.