Imagine acres of fields, over-flowing with wildflowers of every colour imaginable, the likes of yellow rattle, bird’s foot trefoil and even the occasional bee orchid bobbing gently on the wind which carries the sound of hundreds of buzzing insects and birdsong.
I’m Eithne Phillips and I’m the project intern for St Nicks Scything for Grassland Management Project, Meadow Keepers. Some of you may know me from my various volunteer roles at St Nicks, most recently as one of the reserve’s park rangers. I’ve learnt so much over these past few years, I’ve met and worked with some amazing people and have now branched out beyond the gates of St Nicks. With this new project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the dream will become possible for sites all over York.
Back in April, looking at the advertisement on the front door of the Environment Centre, I could feel the role was something special and further investigations only proved that. Reading the details of the project, my excitement only grew.
This project will train volunteers across York to hone their knowledge and skills in managing their meadows and grasslands for ecology and biodiversity. This will be done primarily through monitoring, the subsequent creation of management plans and last but by no means least, scything!
It became clear that this role is a chance to be part of a project that has never been done before, not in the UK at least, so I feel very privileged to play a part in such an inspiring scheme.
What is so amazing about this project is that although many of the sites are within very close proximity, sometimes only a matter of miles, they are all unique in their ecology and have very different management requirements. And there are definitely worse ways to spend my time than walking around looking at the wildlife on the many site visits! I have already gained so much from the few short months as project intern and have received what amounts to a week’s worth of training in plant identification and monitoring. These sessions were primarily led by botanist John O’Reilly from Ptyxis Ecology and on one occasion Hayley New from the National Plant Monitoring Scheme. This new knowledge will be put into practice in the field next year whilst working alongside the fantastic volunteers who signed up to the project. I have already been working with some brilliant people (you know who you are!) by testing out monitoring methods in the pilot study this summer.
Of course I couldn’t write a piece about my role without including a bit about scything. Scything was in years gone by a well known skill in rural life, used to cut the meadows to make a product for livestock in the long and cold winter months. It has fallen into obscurity since then, as technology developed and machines overtook the scythe. It is now making a comeback with thanks given to the BBC adaption of Poldark and, while Aidan Turner’s scything technique leaves a lot to be desired (sorry Aidan), he has helped to raise the profile of this wonderful heritage skill.
As for me, I fell in love with scything two years ago when I picked up an Austrian scythe for the first time and proceeded to hack my way along one of St Nicks’ path verge. My technique has improved since then but that was one of the things that made scything so enjoyable, slowly learning the best methods for cutting, making mistakes and honing the skill. It is a very relaxing conservation technique: you can really lose yourself in the meadow while scything.
On the topic of scything, we had our first Scythe Fest, held at Millennium Bridge Fields on the 9th of September 2017. It was a great day, with a good turn-out from the public. It was nice to see some of you there. My contribution to the day was helping with the scythe taster sessions and in the run up to the event making seed bombs (a way of guerrilla gardening that originated in New York during the 1970s.) It took a few attempts but we managed to make a successful batch of “bombs”, which we tested st St Nicks.
To finish off I’m going to talk about a scything session Jonathan and I attended on 21st September 2017 at Holgate Dock. We were training the local volunteers, scything the edge of the green so that a local school group can come and plant plugs next month.
One of the people we met turned out to be one of the original St Nicks’ team who had volunteered back in the 1990s. He began to describe in vivid detail what the reserve used to look like in its early years. He also spoke of the humbling and heartfelt reason behind the founding of St Nicks.
Some of you may have seen the sandstone pillar at the top of the bund path steps, inscribed with the words John Lally Community Woodland. John was a local environmentalist in York, who played an instrumental part in a lot of green initiatives around the city. When John died in 1995, his grieving friends tried to think of a way to create a lasting memorial to him. Originally planning to plant one sapling tree in his memory, the group found catharsis in the task and continued to plant more. Eventually five thousand native, deciduous trees were planted. So many trees were planted because the group did not believe that they would all survive in the clay capped earth. It is testament to their work that the woodland has thrived so well that we have had to begin rotational thinning of the trees.
When this volunteer spoke about St Nicks with raw emotion and feeling he held in his voice it was hard not to be moved by a fitting tribute to not only a respected conservationist but a beloved friend too. I know I will not be able to walk through the woodland at St Nicks without sparing a thought for John Lally. The woodland work done by the practical conservation volunteers and reserve staff will now hold more meaning and feel even more invaluable for knowing the reason behind its creation.
It is a truly inspirational story and a message to us all of the impact that we can make as individuals. As one tree became thousands, one wildflower can become a whole meadow and the actions we make can create a big change, reaching further than we ever could have imagined.