Traditionally the vegetation of reedbeds, fens and marshes is harvested to provide thatching materials as well as feed and bedding for animals. These wetland habitats, like their drier-land cousins meadow and pasture, depend on cutting or grazing to maintain their condition and hold back the natural succession to scrub and eventually woodland. These man-made habitats are co-incidentally extremely valuable for wildlife which in the past provided additional game and fishing resources to fenlanders and marshmen, and today act as safe havens for some of our most special plants, birds and animals such as the bittern and swallowtail butterfly.
The scythe and sickle are the traditional tools used to mow wetlands. Sometimes, as on the Norfolk Broads, local patterns of scythe and cradles were developed for the task. Almost all wetland is now cut by machine, but the Austrian scythe with the addition of a simple cradle is well suited to the task for smaller scale jobs as SABI mowing trials have demonstrated.
Each year, when conditions permit, a small group of scythers take their scythes out of hibernation and meet in a Norfolk reedbed to have a go cutting reed.
For more background information on reed bed and wetland management read on …
The fenland mowing season is spread out through the year (unlike hay meadows cut once in summer). For marshmen in times past this provided some year round work and income – for todays scythe enthusiast an opportunity to have a go out of season and scythe away the winter blues. The full scything calendar revolves around three fenland crops:
Common or Norfolk Reed (Phragmites communis) is the principal fenland crop used for thatching. Cutting traditionally starts after a few severe frosts have knocked most of the leaves off the stems, in Late December/January, and after water levels within the reedbed have been drained down to allow access. Cutting can continue into March but should finish in time to avoid damage to young emerging shoots ‘colts’ and disturbance of breeding birds. This is the main harvest, (in reed dominated wetlands the only harvest). The most productive commercial reed beds are harvested each year in winter (single wale), but most beds are cut on a two year rotation (double wale): two years of accumulated growth harvested together in a single operation. Plant diversity in single wale system is generally low as annual cutting favours reed dominance. Double wale cutting is better for conservation and diversity as the standing crop left in alternate years provides overwintering habitat and shelter for wildlife. Where reedbeds are managed solely for wildlife areas the cutting interval may be extended to every 3 – 5 years. The harvested material from longer rotation stands will however contain reeds of mixed age and stages of decay and will be of no use for thatching.
Marsh-hay and Fen litter mown in early to mid summer from mixed wetland communities of grasses, sedges, tall herbs and leafy reed growth. In Victorian times vast quantities of ‘marsh-hay’ was shipped down from the Broads to London to provide fodder and bedding for cab horses. Mowing marshes were generally cut once or twice a year as one would a meadow. This crop has no commercial value today, but some areas are mown in this way to develop the habitat diversity of a site. Summer mowing reduces the vigour of common reed and encourages a different balance of species and habitat structure. Reed growth can be further suppressed to maintain areas of open water if after cutting the stubble is flooded – in effect weakening then ‘drowning’ the growing plants.
Great Fen-sedge or saw sedge (Cladium mariscus) is mown next in mid to late summer. Sedge is traditionally used to thatch ridges as remains flexible and strong when dry, while reed becomes stiff and brittle. Saw sedge has deceptively sharp leaf margins, almost as sharp as a scythe – mowing and handling cut material is a hazardous occupation requiring robust protective clothing! Many commercial reedbeds have smaller areas of sedge fen associated with them so that both can be harvested in proportion to their usage. Sedge is cut every three or four years in order to produce material of sufficient length for thatching, and larger producers maintain four beds in rotation. More frequent cutting reduces its length and suitability for ridging and allows competing scrub to become established. Cutting in the late summer is preferred as this prevents reed and other plants from encroaching, and also allows some regrowth to occur before the winter floods. The green cut material is left on the marsh to wilt before being tied into standard-sized bunches.
Other traditional wetland crops include Common Club-Rush (Schoenoplectus lacustris) also known as bulrush. This is harvested every two years in July . The rush stems cut below water with a sickle, dried and cured for several months indoors, and eventually used for plaiting into mats, horse collars, baskets and chair seats. Greater reedmace Typha latifolia ( the one with the large cigar heads now most commonly referred to as bulrush) has in the past been used for low grade thatching and plaiting.
Wetland management summary.
Reedbeds and wetlands require management. Cutting reed in patches, in rotation, so as to create a mix of habitats is positively good for bird life and enhances biodiversity.
Cut reed and other material should be removed from the wetland to be used, otherwise stacked to burn or left to decay in a low value sacrificial area. If left where it was cut it will compact and decay into a smothering black ooze resulting in a loss of both reed and habitat quality
Effective management of wetlands also requires some control of water levels through systems of watercourses sluices and dams. Water levels need to be maintained through the year to prevent the wetland dying out and encouraging dry land weeds and scrub. The depth of flooding will usually fluctuate through the seasons. Managed commercial reed bed systems are drained down in winter to allow access for cutting, then flooded in spring and summer to protect shoots from late frosts and suppress weeds. The more natural cycle of flooding through winter and becoming drier in summer is preferred for wildlife, with areas only being artificially drained if access for working is necessary.
Notes gleaned from RSPB book ‘Reedbed Management for Commercial and Wildlife Interests’ and information supplied by John Letts.