At last, a rain-soaked scene keeps me indoors and tempts me to the relief of the keyboard. The rakes hang stiff on the old smithy wall.
The pitchforks lean straight, tip toed on sharp pronged steel, and achy muscles sigh with relief.
The robins are singing on clear, still, wind free days.
But it’s been all about the grass over the last few weeks.
In this most curious of years for the weather, the one consistent feature has been that in spite of its vagaries, the grass has grown.
It’s grown back in broad stripes in the upper hay meadow, wefting, shuttling smoothly across the sloped travel of the power scythe, and now even two months after that cutting, it still creates visible bands of two tone green. Why? Are the stems still cowering from the oscillating blades’ onslaught?
Not much else productive has really thrived in the same way, in this warmer than normal, drier than normal, but gloomier than usual, summer.
Many of our ash are heading for oblivion, anticipating their name and final resting place in the stove, dying back in a variable creeping jaundice of stems. Leaves brown and crackling.
Many of the erect pitchers are strangely empty of captives, or cadavers. Hungry translucent walls, yearning for prey.
A single fly paper hanging in the gegin, has sufficed to catch the few flies venturing into the vortex.The swallows have been absent from the yard for much of the summer for the first time ever, welcome Swedish chatter sorely missed, and left early having given up on our valley. Was the lack of insects again responsible? Or the feral black cat which snucked into the barn on one occasion and cleaned out a nest of eaves-reared, wagtail chicks.
A rare gathering on the wet meadow wires in early September was probably just a bunch of migrating Northerners, heading South.
Moss, the perpetual exploiter of the moist environment here, has seized its chance to grow in tufted chunks between the East facing slates, normally cooked to crisps, by summer sun.
But at least another (?) Ruby-tailed wasp, Chrysis ignita, returned once more to the terrace table, mid-month, to add a little glamour, and light-up the scene.
And whilst all this grass means the late born lambs are looking as big as lambs born six weeks earlier, and loving the aftermath variety.In our lower meadows, there have simply not been enough mouths to keep the grass down. The eight ewes we decided not to put to the ram this year have had all the wet meadows to themselves for the whole summer. Rushes have diminished, wild flowers are returning and the predominant grasses have been the glorious purple anthered, fine Velvet bent, Agrostis canina, and taller Tufted Hair-grass, Deschampsia cespitosa.
Read Piet Oudolf’s, and other contemporary prairie style planting lists, and you’ll see that Deschampsia cespitosa, in various cultivar guises, is a constantly used plant for trendy gardens. In our lower meadows, it’s a native omnipresent.
Many good, wet Welsh, Tufted hair days this summer, as a consequence. The sheep will tackle it when young in the spring, and any regrowth after cutting, but left ungrazed, gradually thick tussocks will develop, and the return to impenetrable bog would begin again.
By mid-September the strong purple hues had leached to pale straw seed heads, most flowers had set seed, and with many dry weather days, the decision was made to cut and remove all this surplus vegetation. It’s becoming ever clearer to me, that floral diversity in meadows relies on the subtle balance between animal grazing and cutting and removal, to weaken grass dominance, however that balance is achieved.
So, this has kept us busy. We, hopefully, have no need for the material removed, either as bedding or fodder, so have had the luxury of experimenting with creating hay ricks or as we tend to call them, grass yurts. The aim being to remove the maximum amount of material onto the minimum footprint of ground with the least amount of effort.
8 feet in diameter with a single central 8 feet post knocked into the ground and a single peripheral 6 feet post, a circle of bent pig wire forms the peripheral retaining wall into which hay can be tossed with pitchfork. This is good aerobic exercise, pausing occasionally to stamp down the internal contents. And reflect. For proper hay drying, these ricks are too big, and don’t have adequate scope for ventilation – see more in the later links, but were a useful initial trial of techniques for us.
The two yurts made with pretty dry ‘hay’, have been covered with tarpaulins as back up fodder in the case of a severe winter, the other 3 are already doing what any pile of organic matter does surprisingly quickly – heating up as thermophilic bacteria get started on decomposition. Perhaps, if all goes well, I shall have 3 extra raised beds for next year, protected by pig netting from the surrounding sharp incisors.
Having nudged a little more towards mechanisation, we’ve experimented with our little alpine tractor in this process. It has a brilliantly low pressure footprint, so will tackle the wet ground with no significant damage, and is helpful for moving loose “hay” towards one of the yurts, but heavier machinery would struggle on such soft terrain, small baling machines are available but with very high capital cost, so much of this work still has to be done by hand.
As indeed it must always have been in the past, when man power first claimed such land for grazing from the rushy bog it would default to. Thinking about these largely forgotten, in the UK at least, aspects of hay making, and indeed hay rick construction, I found my way onto an intriguing website called Scythe Connection. Click here for more. The work of Peter Vido, a Slovakian now resettled in Canada, there was much fascinating information here. And for those sceptical, click here for an insight into how Peter Vido came to becoming a manual scythe advocate. An interesting story.
And click here for Peter’s comments about a biodiversity project in Slovakian meadows, where annual scything and removal has in some cases increased species numbers by 40% in just 4 years.
The site contains much about the benefits of manual scything, including how different methods of cutting vegetation result in different types of cut stem. Following the trail, I found the site of a British scything guru who sold, and taught manual scything technique, using the Austrian design of scythe favoured by Vido. And from this Dorset based scyther, found a link to a Welsh supplier, who turns out to be very close to us in Carmarthenshire, at Scythe Cymru. Click here for more.
Furthermore, after looking at the latter site, I discovered I was just in time to sign up to Philip Batten’s last manual scything courses of the year, which took place on one of the hottest days of the year in mid September.
A hugely enjoyable, interesting, and value for money day, which I have written about in more detail on the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group website, (click here for more), but as a brief taster of the day, these photos give a glimpse of the morning travel to get there.And everything that was covered, from setting up the scythe, Blade choice, through basic techniques, safety aspects of manual scything to actual mowing.And the equally vital techniques, for blade sharpening.And even peening – hammered metal bashing of the blade, required to keep the blade razor sharp, after about every 8 hours of mowing.
Satisfying though the day was – and seeing a swathe of grass fall neatly beneath a sweeping blade is hugely satisfying compared with mechanical cutting, I suspect my use of the scythe will be restricted to awkward areas, ditches and maybe even cutting back some areas of the garden at the end of the year, since there are other parts of the hay making process, which on our terrain will have to remain manual for lack of viable alternatives. And very sadly, there isn’t enough energy left in our bodies to do the whole process manually.
As often happens in September, we’ve had some dramatic, and varied, moody sunrises.As well as misty mornings when the toil of countless spiders, suddenly becomes visible.
Perhaps hungrier than usual this year?
On one such morning, after multiple photos of both classic orb webs, and more random affairs, I did marvel at the work of these numerous arachnids. It’s reckoned that in a vibrant diverse hay meadow there are likely to be about 2 million per acre, at the annual population’s peak.
But there’s never any praise or recognition of their skilled, and individual footwork.
No pending knighthoods.
Their artistry is even designed, and meant to be invisible.
What a contrast, to the praise and money heaped on Sir Anish Kapoor, for the surprisingly web like installation of the ArcelorMittal Orbit at the 2012 Olympic Park, click here, and his meshed Temenos sculpture, at Middlesborough, click here.
Mega works of sculpture, or art, perhaps succeeding in their quest to be awe inspiring by their very size, next to the tiny human forms beside them. But how much more inspiring for this humble rural scribbler, to experience such exquisite technique on such a grand scale, by such tiny creatures, with no motivation other than being able to snare their next meal.
And everywhere, almost no prey present.
Marvelling at this annual feast of silk spinning, I thought I needed to add to my basic knowledge about spiders, which was limited to knowing that they’re arachnids, and have eight legs, not the 6 found in all insects.
Their basic anatomy includes two body segments, not the 3 of all insects. A fused head and thorax, or prosoma; and an abdomen or opisthosoma. The prosoma includes a straw like mouth part – spiders can’t chew, so need to suck up their prey as a nutrient soup, after it’s been killed and digested by enzymes which the spider injects to break down its prey’s body tissues.
They don’t have antennae, rather the most frontal of appendages are called palps or pedipalps. In male spiders, part of the pedipalp is used for mating – semen is transferred onto this structure which is then used to inseminate the female spider, the male spider lacking a more conventional penis. Also lacking antennae, they use specialised hairs, or setae, on their legs to detect smells and vibrations.
They have up to eight eyes, each with a single lens unlike the compound eyes found in insects.
Internally they have an open circulation with spaces into which a fluid called haemolymph is pumped by a simple heart located in the abdomen. A variety of breathing systems are used – fine tracheal airways allowing air in through the exoskeleton to diffuse throughout the body in some species. In others, one or more sets of ‘book lungs’, around which haemolymph is circulated, and air diffuses. Click here for more.
I discovered a couple of scientific publications covering more specific details of spider ecophysiology, edited by Wolfgang Nentwig, from which I shall share the following snippets of arachnid information.
Did you know that spiders lack any muscles in their legs, to extend the main joints? They use instead, a hydraulic system, pumping the previously mentioned haemolymph fluid, into special channels within the legs, in order to get these joints to move in extension.
All spiders produce silk, and many produce several different types. Spidroins, spider silk proteins, have the unusual property of being capable of storage in high concentration as a liquid solution, but then rapidly undergoing a phase change to form a solid fibre, during the actual spinning process. Some silk fibres have been shown to have five times the strength of Kevlar. One of the stranger uses of spider silk, has been the production of cobweb paintings, using collected webs to produce a fragile background canvas, onto which paints can be applied. Click here for more.
Most jumping spiders possess tiny processes, called setules, growing from the hairs on their feet, and it’s estimated that the half a million or so of these setules could support the weight of over 170 spider bodies, regardless of the nature or angle of the surface it’s jumped onto. No glue is involved, just miniscule Van de Waal natural forces of attraction between opposing surfaces. (Click here for more). Which means that, like certain lizards, some spiders can climb any surface, at any angle.
I guess over the years, spiders have had a poor press, and so much of their fascinating ecophysiology remains to be discovered. I feel inspired to try to learn a bit more after delving into their complex anatomy and habits for this post.
Julian, where do I start! Another poetic, fascinating, interesting post supported by some really beautiful photos. I’ve clicked here , there and everywhere following your wonderful links and my knowledge of scythes, wasps, hayricks, spiders and webs has grown enormously! Let’s hope we have a bit of dry weather now so we can tidy up the garden and prepare for colder days.
Thanks for that Marianne – a bit of a struggle to get started on this post – The title is a play on Frank Cabot ( of Aberglasney fame) saying in his fab book about his garden near Quebec ( A Greater Perfection) that by the time he got to September he felt “gardened out”.
This year gardening has seemed like light relief compared with all the meadow work. But I must admit that though I hate the dark days of winter and long nights, at least it gives one a bit of a breather. Let’s hope we get a decent cold winter this year, and not as wet as last year….but the law of mean reversion for the year suggests after low rainfall through the spring/summer, it will be wet again!
A feast of information and good photographs. Thank you.
Thanks TP, Glad you enjoyed it all,
I need to be prepared to have mind space available before I tackle your posts. I had always been in awe of manual scything, after this I am even more in awe. My knowledge of spiders has likewise exponentially increased, thank you. And of course, beautiful photographs. Amelia
Thanks Amelia. I wonder if you ever see manual scything in France? It seems to be “on trend” here after a TV series (Poldark) which we haven’t seen…not having TV! It really was hugely satisfying to do on the day, with a sharp blade – but keeping the scythe sharp will be half of a long term battle, I think.
I must see if I can track down a good generalist book on spiders – the 2 I referenced are far too expensive, but already I’m fascinated by aspects of their physiology and glad you enjoyed this snippet/insight too,
I’ve never seen manual scything in France (are they closer in time to the manual farming methods than the farmers in the U.K.?), I cannot see it being appreciated here. Walking and cycling are only practised as sports in this area. I do regret having learnt so little about spiders and insects. Amelia
Thanks Amelia, interesting comment about cycling and walking – we’ve noticed over the last few years how many more cyclists there are – almost certainly on the back of all the recent British success at the Olympics and Tour de France – maybe France needs another winner of the Tde F to inspire a new generation? Mind you we did a coastal path walk a week ago on a fabulous sunny day, and only met one other walker, so there aren’t huge numbers in this part of the world either,
Fascinating stuff! Funnily enough, a bath tub does not seem to be included in those surfaces that a spider can run up with its miniscule setules.
Thanks for the comment EGD. And an interesting point about bath tubs and spiders – I’m glad that they can’t climb out since at the moment there’s one in there most days. But of course none of them are jumping spiders ( which apparently have the greatest numbers of setules) – I wonder if they can manage to get out of baths? Perhaps some reader would know – and if not, I wonder if geckos and such like struggle with climbing out of baths too?
Best wishes, Julian
Enjoyed your post. I love autumn 🙂
Thanks Inese, so do I . A chance to slow down a bit, best wishes
Beautiful – and a little less pleasant aspect with the spiders! I actually have nothing against them, on the contrary I find them fascinating but just can’t cope with the way they eat – although even that has a morbid fascination. I don’t know if you saw my ‘Dragon catcher’ post of October last year? A spider had managed to catch a dragonfly and seeing it slowly being reduced to a collapsed shell over two or three days was pretty gruesome!
In relatively recent years we’ve toured through eastern Europe where, in Romania particularly, the scythe is still well used and the hayricks are a joy to behold. Hard work I’m sure but I’m also sure it’s better for the land and has the added benefit that it doesn’t result in those horrible black (now pink!) plastic wrapped bales that scatter the fields around here.
Hello Noeline. I don’t remember your spider image ( though that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it at the time! I’ll check it out. Again?).
I’ve seen images of Romanian haymaking, and of course the fabulous florally diverse hay meadows that still exist there as a result. I wish there were a happy medium – we’re trying with 2 ageing bodies to manage our little bit of land sympathetically – but we know that 100 years ago a family with 10 children lived here….many hands did enable such manually hard work to achieve results, and of course the flora developed to coexist with this sort of low intensity management. With modern techniques and machinery, much – flowers/insects/higher wildlife, has no chance to survive and reproduce. i don’t know whether there really is a happy medium, but for example in our fledgling meadows group, we do see a merit in small scale/hobby farmers being able to use such old fashioned management to encourage diversity. And allow some species to withstand the onset of the anthropocene…