How can traditional management of the orchard floor and other hay meadows improve biodiversity?
ORE Director Crispin Hayes travelled to Romania on an Erasmus + Study Tour looking at sustainable village agriculture. In this piece he relates his experiences.
Haymaking is widespread in Alba County both in the hill & mountain villages and throughout the flat low lands of Transylvania. Orchards are also widespread though tended to be concentrated around villages. In the south and centre of Alba County, plums dominated the orchards. The plums are made into Rakia, the local spirit drunk anytime from breakfast to bedtime. This spirit is home produced and is a cultural indicator of the characters involved. When aged for 20 yrs in a mulberry cask or blended with homemade walnut cordial, it is a very smooth and enjoyable drink.
In the north of Alba County for example around Rimetea, apple orchards were very much in evidence. The wider area also grows a lot of grapes which are made into wine which has a good reputation.
Lots of invertebrate life
The biodiverse content of these species rich grasslands is discussed elsewhere, the focus here is management which provides the conditions for this species richness, and for the abundance of invertebrate life. These orchard pastures and hay meadows appeared to be almost entirely managed by traditional methods; that is to say cut by scythe and the hay stacked on a traditional triangular frame or steddle, often in the field.
Use of the scythe
We engaged in mowing by scythe in Girbovita village near Aiud. The location was a hay meadow above the village which we arrived at after walking through an orchard. The sward was herb dominated rather than grass dominated. We joined the farmer with some extra scythes and were given a brief demonstration before having a go ourselves. It took some practice but it was possible to quickly cut a swath of grass.
In the experienced hands of the farmer, a clean and consistent cut about 40mm about the ground was made. The width of cut was more than 1.5m and the cutting action creates a swath at the left-hand edge of cut. Progress is at an incremental walk, but because the cut is wide the ground is covered at a good rate.
On another occasion, we went to rake a small very steep meadow surrounded by woodland. It was planted with young walnut trees as a new orchard. This location really emphasised the versatility of the scythe. The steepness and the young walnuts would have made it impossible to use even pedestrian machinery. However, with hand tools it was fairly quick work.
What was surprising was not that scythe cut hay was normal in the hill villages, but that scythes were widely used in the flat wide plains as well. In these lowlands, there is ‘pre-enclosure’ landscape of strips showing a complex landownership. Though it was clear that some tractors were used to mow and bale hay, the majority of hay even in this mechanisable landscape, was still cut and handled by hand. This perhaps indicates the depth of cultural significance that the scythe holds for rural Romanians.
Reflection on motor mowers vs the scythe
The Romanian experience has led to a great deal of reflection on how hay, orchards, amenity grassland, ‘rough grass’ and agricultural set aside is managed in Britain. The tendency to use rotary mowers and in the agricultural setting mower conditioners, must have an impact on invertebrate life. In Romania, we were able to experience what is possible with grassland management when it is more sympathetic to biodiversity. It has been enlightening.