The Great Swardeston Rake Off

It’s that time of year again where we spend a few days at Swardeston Common cutting the meadow area. The meadow is looking great with a wide variety of flowers and lots of butterflies. But if we want it to look great again next year, we have to cut it all back and rake off all the cuttings. Otherwise everything will just die back and form a dense sward which will mainly benefit the nettles and more invasive species, but the variety of wildflowers will gradually diminish.

Before we start cutting, we take some time out to admire what is left of the wildflowers that were on display this year. πŸ₯€πŸŒΌπŸŒ»

The meadow takes around three days to cut using brush cutters. Each section has its own character and dominant species and over the years we have got to know the area quite well (including the hidden ditches and holes!). The first section was tackled on 8th August and had a lot of butterbur, hemp agrimony and long grasses.Β  The butterbur is large and pithy and spits back at you as the blades cut through it. There were also a lot of cleavers and their seeds fly everywhere clinging to clothes and skin. The brush cutters clear an area and then move on so that other volunteers can move in and rake all the cuttings into piles which are then loaded on to tarpaulins and dragged to the side of the site. It seems a shame to cut back the wildflowers but most of these have now set seed and are about to die back. Cutting helps release the seeds which fall to the ground and grow to become part of next year’s display. Removing the cuttings benefits the meadow and also creates habitat piles for the over-wintering wildlife. It was a hot day, so lunch was taken under the shade of the alder. We had a few cakes today, an apricot fruit cake from Paula and flapjacks from me.

After a morning of cutting, raking and dragging the cut material to the edges of the meadow, it is always great to sit down for lunch under the Alder tree and survey the changing landscape. 🧐

We were back on 9th August with a weather forecast that sounded pretty dire so we weren’t too sure if we would be able to achieve much if it rained heavily. However, we set to work tackling the middle section of the meadow. It is damper along the bottom edge of this section with a lot a reed bound together by bindweed. It is difficult to cut and requires a lot of effort to slice through it and move it to one side ready for the next cut. There was also a large patch of long reedy grass that had collapsed onto itself in all directions and was testing the brush-cutting skills of me and Robert as we tried to get under it to cut it back to ground level. It took some time to clear the area, but our persistence paid off! The weather forecast was, of course, wrong and it gradually warmed up to become a hot and exhausting day for our small team of volunteers. However, by the end of the day we had cut over two thirds of the meadow but had to leave some of the cuttings in piles since we had run out of energy to drag these to the sides.

Cracking on with the rest of the meadow and tackling that gnarly section of reeds and bindweed. 😣

We returned on 15th August to complete the hay cut. Lots of volunteers out today which was good because we had a lot to do. While Robert, fireman Chris and I tackled the uncut area the other volunteers cleared the piles of cuttings left from our last visit. By the time they had finished we had cut a lot more for them to deal with. There are a number of oak and other trees along the edge of this section and we cut under and around them to highlight these. There were also stands of various wildflowers that we left un-cut since they looked good and also help to soften the effects of our work. Some of the flowers we knew such as the knapweed and hemp agrimony but there was also a patch of an unknown yellow flower that Robert decided to leave. Brush cutting may be a brutal, but effective way, of managing sites but we do think about what we are doing and why. We all have our sensitive side and regularly exercise this during our volunteering. Things also have to look right so leaving areas uncut or cutting wavy lines instead of straight can enhance a site while still managing it for the flora and fauna.

On the last section now and by the end of the day, all of the meadow has now been cut for another year. πŸ‘

Being a Thursday, we again had cake! Keith had made a delicious Bakewell and Paula provided her tasty flapjacks. It was a hot day and a lot of effort was expended so eating cake doesn’t count as a sin! Lunch was, again, under the shade of a tree. We sat on one of the tarps and chatted away as usual, even though we all seem to have our backs to each other! We had finished the annual hay cut. All the cuttings had been raked off and piled to the side. The entrances to the common had also been trimmed and the path edges mowed around the site. Our next visit to Swardeston will probably be in the Autumn to continue our campaign of thinning the blackthorn. I have probably been cutting the meadow at Swardeston for the past eight years and, in a way, the completion of this marks a coming to the end of the season. We will be back next year, and the meadow will be even better as a result of our work over this and previous summers.