The environmental charity Kosenka, based in Valašské Klobouky, has been working to preserve the forests and meadows of the White Carpathian mountain region since 1981. Headed by the charasmatic Mirek Janik, their work includes running educational programmes, an ecological advisory service and practical conservation work including Kosení, a 2 week project each summer mowing and making hay using scythes on 6ha of steep pastures. Of this, 2ha is owned by Kosenka and the rest by local sheep farmers who help with the harvest in exchange for the hay. The project is funded through the state as the meadows are valuable sites for wild gladiolus and rare orchids and the regular mowing and grazing are important management techniques for their survival.
We joined the second week of the project with 30 other volunteers including students, teachers, dancers from the state ballet, computer programmers, a meteorologist and a sailor. Everyone lives together for the week, camping in the forest and eating communally from a kitchen based around an ex-army wood-fired stove built into a trailer.
Although the scythe is in fairly common use in Czech Rep and we saw snaths and blades for sale in the town, there is no formal association related to it so on the first evening Christiane and I described the Scythe Associations of Austria and Britain and their activities. Most of the volunteers were new to mowing and the only scythes available were Russian made with straight snaths so on the morning of the first work day, we led an introductory workshop on the swiss snath and tai-chi mowing style. I also gave advice on how to select the right size of straight snath.
The weather the previous week had been unsettled so our first job was to finish turning and rowing up the hay which had been cut, ready for the farmer to bale. We worked with handmade wooden rakes and forks which were very well designed and made. Mirek told us that it is becoming more and more difficult to find good tools as the old craftsmen are disappearing and now all that’s available are cheap versions in the agricultural merchants.
The next morning was our first of mowing. Up at 4am we carried our tools up the mountainside to the Dobsena reserve – 1.5ha of steep meadow looking out towards Slovakia. The previous day we had explained how it is more comfortable to mow diagonally across a slope but this is obviously not the Czech way and we set off straight downhill! The meadow was full of wild flowers and herbs so that with each cut of the scythe, a dozen or more species were mown and the air was filled with a wonderful cocktail of smells. Afterwards, many people collected bunches of herbs to dry- my own harvest was St John’s Wort for tea.
It was a real treat to be mowing as part of such a big group and seeing how fast the meadow was cut. As the morning wore on and the sun crept up over the horizon we were kept refreshed by deliveries of either mountain spring water or a shot of the local slivovic – plum brandy.
I worked with the Swiss snath and one of the Russian snaths which I have used before in England but not for such a long period of time. I found it as easy and comfortable as the Swiss style, especially for my wide meadow style. With the filming of Anna Karenina coming up, this will stand me in good stead for that.
On the final evening a wreath of woven grasses, a hayfork and scythe led the procession up to one of the meadows were we heard Mirek describe the importance of these projects, not only for the meadow and wild flowers but to maintain the traditions of mowing and haymaking and to bring people together for work, learning and social interaction.
Over the course of the week, we mowed and made hay on almost 3ha, met some wonderful people and learned a lot about haymaking, mowing with straight snaths and peening – more about that another time.