Gift Vouchers for Scythe Courses or Scythe Kits Gift

Looking for something a little different for a Christmas or Birthday gift? We are now offering gift vouchers for our Scythe Courses and Scythe Kits.

A Scythe Course Gift Voucher costs £50 and will allow the recipient to book a place on one Introductory Scythe Course at the Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust in 2014

A Scythe Course and Kit Gift Voucher costs £195 and includes:

  • The opportunity to book a place on one Introductory Scythe course at the Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust in 2014
  • A One Blade Scythe Kit with a “Ready to Mow” blade (see
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Colourful Waxcap Fungi found at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust

Clavaria zollingeri (Violet Coral) in Penboyr churchyard

Clavaria zollingeri (Violet Coral) in Penboyr churchyard

My daughter and I have had an interest in Waxcaps (Hygrocebe spp) and associated fungi since we were lucky enough to discover an important site for them at Penboyr Churchyard (os ref: SN 360363), a short walk from our home. We have been enjoying their display for several autumns now, including the rare Violet CoralClavaria zollingeri. This amazing fungi looks like violet fingers rising out of the ground and is on the Red Data list for endangered fungi.

We were delighted to find several kinds of waxcap on the Trust land this autumn, pictures of which can be seen below.

What is so important about Waxcaps? Well firstly, they are very attractive, emerging in a range of jewel like colours including reds, yellows, whites and greens. More importantly, they have become increasingly uncommon, or even threatened species throughout the UK due to changes in land management.

Waxcaps and associated fungi such as Coral, Spindle and Club fungi(Clavaria and Clavulinopsis spp) require undisturbed, low fertility semi-natural grassland (not ploughed or fertilised). The same conditions in the Trust hay meadows that create the ideal conditions for a profusion of wildflowers in the summer provide ideal conditions for Waxcap fungi in the autumn.

Yet, according to the Pembrokeshire Fungus Recording Network, it has been estimated that more then 90% of this habitat has been lost since the 15th century, through agricultural intensification, loss of land to development and neglect / abandonment of grassland leading to scrub encroachment.

If you are interested in finding out more, the Pembrokeshire Fungus Recording Network produce an excellent booklet called “An Identification Guide to Waxcaps in West Wales”.

If you are not lucky enough to have access to areas of permanent grassland, churchyards and burial grounds are an excellent place to look for such fungi. They often contain remnant populations of the flora and fauna once found in the surrounding countryside but have been protected from agricultural intensification. The charity Caring for God’s Acre are doing excellent work encouraging churchs and local councils to manage their burial grounds so as to benifit wildlife (including encouraging the use of the scythe!).

Why not go out and see what you can find in your fields, or your local park or burial ground?!

Hygrocebe punicea (Crimson Waxcap)

Hygrocebe punicea (Crimson Waxcap)

Hygrocebe pratensis (Meadow Waxcap)

Hygrocebe pratensis (Meadow Waxcap)

Yellow Hygrocebe sp, not yet positivly identified

Yellow Hygrocebe sp, not yet positivly identified

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Harvesting Bracken

Bracken Mowing - cut bracken to the left, uncut to the right

Bracken Mowing – cut bracken to the left, uncut to the right

I have been using our trimming scythe to harvest bracken in one of the fields at the Trust. Mature bracken stalks are pretty tough, so I used a 65cm Styria blade, which is capable of cutting rougher stuff without sustaining unreasonable damage to the cutting edge.

I say “harvesting” rather then “controlling” the bracken because the material I cut will be put to good use in our garden. We use it to mulch garden beds over the winter, where it breaks down to a dark brown, rich looking compost, helps to control weeds and protects the soil over the winter. Bracken is a rich source of phosphorus and the mulch is a useful addition to the garden ecosystem.

Interestingly, using bracken as a mulch in the garden imitates what bracken does out in the field. Left uncut, the bracken fronds collapse and die during the autumn and in effect, create it’s own mulch, covering the ground and killing out competing grasses and herbage. Come the spring, the young bracken fronds emerge with little competing vegetation around them and soon come to dominate an area and spread. The bracken mulch will also protect the underlying rhizomes from frost damage.

By removing the bracken from the field in the autumn, we put it’s excellent mulching capacities to use in a much more useful place (our garden!) and open up the bracken sward in the field, allowing light into competing grass and herbage which will then be in place to compete with the emerging bracken fronds in the spring and check it’s growth. The bracken rhizomes are also more exposed to frost, potentially weakening them.

This is the fifth autumn that we have cut and removed bracken from this area. It is notable that when the bracken is cut now there is grass underneath, whereas in the first year there was only sparse sorrel plants. Although autumn cutting of the bracken does not get rid of it, it does appear to check it’s spread and it provides us with a useful product.

Historically, bracken was an important part of the rural economy with uses including animal bedding and thatch.

The end of the mowing - windrows of bracken

The end of the mowing – windrows of bracken

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More Hay Making with Racks

Right- windrows mown in the morning, Centre- Phil spreading hay mown the day before, Left-Hay racks

Right- windrows mown in the morning, Centre- Phil spreading hay mown the day before, Left-Hay racks

Since our last Introductory Scythe Course on 18th August we have been hay making again, although in a different fashion to earlier in the season. The weather has not been classic settled hay making weather. We have had bright sunny days alternating with cloudier days and the threat of showers. Instead of trying to get hay totally dry on the ground in these uncertain conditions, we have been using racks.

Every morning when it seems likely that there will be two days of reasonable weather, Phil has been cutting enough grass to fit onto two of our racks. This is spread in the late morning, then rowed up for the night. The hay is spread again the next day. By the evening of the second day it is usually dry enough to put up on to racks. (See this post for information on how to build a hay rack)

At any one point, there is several stages of hay on the field, as can be seen in the photo above. There is the mornings mowing, ready to spread; the mowing from the day before that will be spread then racked in the evening; and of course a growing army of filled racks! As necessary, we will start to empty the first racks we made and “leapfrog” them to the front ready to be re-filled.

Hay making in this fashion has a more relaxed feel to it. Including mowing, turning and racking it only takes up about two hours of every day. Most of this work is done by one person, although Phil and I usually make one rack each in the evening (and perhaps see who can create the best shaped top….). This is quite a contrast to the long days we worked earlier in the summer. It is a rhythm that we could sustain over a long period of time, and leaves much more time and energy for the myriad other jobs that a productive small holding demands. There is also less risk – should an un-anticipated shower fall, the volume of hay at risk of damage is relatively small.

It was satisfying to have got the bulk of the hay in during a couple of busy weeks, but also useful to know that we can make extra without too much strain, and that we have techniques that we can use should good haying weather fail to appear.

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Using Racks Part 4 – taking the racks down

Last Monday, after two days of dry weather I took down some of the hay racks that we built at the end of July. It was the first chance to compare how the racks with and without canvas “hats” have fared.

The racks have had 133.5mm of rain on them over the four weeks that they have been standing. This included one soaking of 40mm in 24 hours, the kind of rainfall that we have found the racks to be the least resistant to.

The first one I took down had no hat. I removed the layer of hay from the top of the rack and was disappointed to find a patch of mouldy hay just underneath. This was on the south west face, and appeared to be where moisture managed to penetrate the top “thatch” enough to soak the hay, perhaps pushed in by the prevailing winds. The rack top had settled to a less then ideal profile with a dip in the middle, as can be seen in the photo below, probably because insufficient hay had been put on top. It was also made from the hay that had the least amount of drying time on the field, which may have been a contributing factor.

Lower layers of the rack were fine, although not of the highest quality, and were taken to the barn. The mouldy hay was not wasted, but was used as mulch in areas where we are establishing new forest garden areas and edible hedges.

The next rack had a hat, and was much more satisfying. Even from the outside, the sheltering effect of the “hat” could be seen. Exposed hay on the outside was weathered to a pale gray, but on the ends and under the hat it was still a golden green. The quality was much better as well, and I did not reject any of the hay. Again, the quality improved as I moved down the layers, moving from adequate hay at the top to reasonably sweet smelling near the bottom. There was a slight drop in quality at the very bottom, possibly due to ground moisture and splash where the hay hung very close to the ground.

The next rack I took down was again hat-less, but much better then the first. I did put the very top covering layer aside for mulching, but below that the hay was fine and on the lower layers, as good as the hay on the “hatted” rack. This rack had had a much thicker layer put on top, and maintained a much better profile as it settled then the first rack.

I took down several more racks, both with hats and without. My observation so far is that the canvas hats are valuable in helping to cure the hay well on racks, with much less if any damage to the hay from persistent damp. Racks with well built tops also performed well, although I generally still put the very top most layer aside for mulch and the top layers of hay were of slightly lesser quality then that on the hatted racks. Racks with poorly built tops (there were two) showed signs of damage from persistent damp in the hay on the exposed side, a larger proportion of the hay was fit only for use as mulch and the rest was of generally lower quality.

Therefore, it would appear that canvas hats are a useful addition to the style of racks we use. The major disadvantage is having to acquire suitable material to make them. We used old cotton yurt canvas, which will shed the worst of the rain but still allow the hay to breathe. It would be interesting to see how plastic woven canvas or tarps would perform. These are perhaps more readily available but there may be problems if the hay on the rack is not able to dissipate it’s internal moisture through a covering that is too water impervious.

Racks without hats can perform almost as well, perhaps maybe as well, but a well built top is critical. We are improving with practice over the years! The major reason we have experienced for the failure of the top of a rack is putting insufficient hay on the top, such that as it settles it does not form a thick enough cover, a mistake many beginners make. Shape is also important, and we try to aim for a rounded top, sloping in all directions to shed rain.

The other reasons we have encountered for failure of racks in the past is packing the hay too tightly onto the rack and filling them with hay that is too green.

The 1st rack. The centre top has sunk down slightly, rather then maintaining an ideal rounded shape

The 1st rack. The centre top has sunk down slightly, rather then maintaining an ideal rounded shape

Moldy patch underneath the top covering of the 1st rack

Moldy patch underneath the top covering of the 1st rack

Rack with hat - Layer of grey weathered hay on the outside with yellow-green hay showing on the ends

Rack with hat – Layer of grey weathered hay on the outside with yellow-green hay showing on the ends

Yellow-green hay underneath the hat, suitable for storing for winter use.

Yellow-green hay underneath the hat, suitable for storing for winter use.

The rack with hat, after removal of the top layers

The rack with hat, after removal of the top layers

The third rack, with a top that has settled into a better shape

The third rack, with a top that has settled into a better shape

The third rack, after removal of the top layers

The third rack, after removal of the top layers

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Using Racks Part 3 – building a rack

As promised, here is a guide to how we stack our hay racks! Racks are used to save hay from bad weather when is not yet dry enough to bring into a barn. The design of the rack allows the hay to continue curing while the outside layers of hay shed the rain and protect the rest from damage.

We start with a wooden frame, made from poles harvested from the hedgerows during the winter. The frame is in two parts, rather like two wooden hurdles, with two uprights, three horizontal rails and a diagonal bracing piece. These are leant against each other to form an A-frame as in the picture. We often tie them at the top with a twist of hay or a bit of baler twine to make them more stable during stacking. Hay is then raked from the surrounding windrows to the bottom of the rack and we are ready to build!

Stacking starts by placing hay over the bottom rail. I tend to put on fairly small amounts at a time, aiming to get the length of the stalks in the hay mostly aligned at 90 degrees to the rail and hanging down either side. It is tempting to put on great armfuls at a time, but this tends to mean the hay is laying in lots of different directions rather then mostly in one direction. A better result is achieved by being a bit more careful and it is not much slower when you are practised at it. Also, there is nothing more annoying if a whole side falls off just as you are about to finish off the top!

The layer on the bottom rails is built up, keeping the outside edge pretty much vertical until the second rail is reached. It is tempting at this point to pack down the hay and tuck a lot under the second rail, but this is not generally a good idea unless the hay you are stacking is virtually dry. Compacting the hay prevents air circulation and may cause molding. The wetter the hay is when you are stacking it, the more loosely it needs to be placed onto the rack.

Also I have found that as the hay settles naturally on the rack, air channels form under the rails as the hay settles away from them. These potentially aid air circulation through, and therefore drying of, the hay. Compacting it at this stage will prevent this process from occurring.

Hay continues to be added to the rack, building up from the second to the third rail and continuing to keep the sides nearly vertical. I tend to build up both sides at the same rate, building up to the second rail, then up to the top. When working with someone else we both take a side and try to build at a fairly even rate.

Once the top rail is reached building continues slightly differently. I now place the hay so that it stretches right across the top from one side to the other. Once I have put on sufficient to reach the top of the uprights of the frame, I start working in a circle, walking round the growing haystack and placing hay from all sides as I go. I start to bring the edges in and I am aiming to create a nice rounded top that will shed water effectively. This is a bit of an art and rather enjoyable. Each rack comes out with it’s own unique shape! It is important to make sure enough hay is put onto this top layer, such that there is sufficient to keep the frame covered as it settles. In the past, we have had problems with the uprights starting to stick through the top of the hay as it settles when too little has been placed on top. This then creates a place where water can run into the hay stack and spoil the hay.

To finish off, the outside of the stack can be gently brushed to align the stalks downwards and form a better water-shedding layer, although I do not generally find this necessary if the stack has been built carefully. The bottom of the rack often needs a bit of tidying up, with any hay that is lying on or hanging down right to the ground pulled off and put on the top.

The racks are amazingly resilient to weather. Sometimes the very top layer will blow off when they are fresh, but once they have settled for a few days very little hay seems to blow off under normal circumstances. This year, we have experimented with putting canvas “hats” on some of our racks, as can be seen here.

The first layer of hay is laid over the bottom rail

The first layer of hay is laid over the bottom rail

Filling the bottom rail with hay

Filling the bottom rail with hay

Building up hay from the first to second rail. Note the outside edge is kept nearly vertical.

Building up hay from the first to second rail. Note the outside edge is kept nearly vertical.

The finished rack. Note curving top to shed rain and the hole through underneath for ventilation.

The finished rack. Note curving top to shed rain and the hole through underneath for ventilation.

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Peening and Sharpening Workshop

Tink, tink, tink......

Tink, tink, tink……

Five people joined us today for our Peening and Sharpening Workshop. In the morning, Phil went through the principles of jig and free hand peening, and everyone had a go at both. Old blades were available for practice and confidence building. When using the jig, people enjoyed the opportunity to deliberately make “mistakes” on the practice blades, and see what happens when the jig is used correctly and incorrectly.

After lunch we looked at blade repair, then everyone moved on to working on their own blades, mostly using free hand peening techniques and repairing damage as necessary. Phil was on hand with help and advice available as necessary.

After a day of learning and practice, I hope everyone will find ample reward in the improved performance of their scythes!

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