Maigs are a traditional long reach scythe – used in the Norfolk broads for clearing emergent vegetation in drainage ditches from the bankside. They are also useful for clearing excess growth from the margins of ponds and other water features.
I first came a across a Maig on a tool collector’s stall at the Strumpshaw Tree Fair in the Norfolk Broads. A curious variant of a scythe with a long straight snath, a very open hafting angle, and in this particular example, a small two pronged pitch fork fixed in the upper end of the shaft.
Some years later whist delivering a scythe course for Norfolk Wild life Trust on their Upton Broad reserve I noticed that they had several Maigs in their tool store, and better than that, people there who knew how to use them. Over the lunch break I was treated to a demonstration and instruction as to its use from Bob Morgan.
The recent aftermath scythe gathering in my home meadow by coincidence bought together Chris Adams who manages a North Cove wetland reserve in Suffolk, who was looking for a tool to manage his drainage ditches; Barry Rainbird who volunteers using Maigs at Upton and Thorpe Marshes NWT reserves; and myself with a stock of scythe spares and wood.
A plan was hatched: I would construct two Maigs using blades and fittings from worm-eaten English scythes; we would try them out at a NWT working party with Barry alongside the NWT Maigs on Thorpe Marshes; and after final design tweaking, Chris would take one Maig down to use at North Cove, and I would keep one to use at the Wetland reserve I manage at Heacham.
Maig design and construction
The snath shaft is made of straightish willow coppiced from my garden. The length of the snath was determined by the maximum length I could fit in my car with the blade detached (a bit over 2.5m). Willow is lighter than ash and plenty strong enough especially with a thicker shaft diameter to match English scythe fittings (47mm tapering to 37mm). As is usual with wildwood snaths there is inevitably some curvature in the shaft. Rather than straightening with steam, this curvature can be turned to good use by arranging it to the most comfortable and functional orientation when fitting it to the blade.
The trickiest part of the construction was resetting the tang angle on the blades. This required some experimentation using a homemade forge and a potato to protect the blade edge from over-heating, (plus some help and advice from Jim McVittie). I aimed for a hafting angle of around 130 degrees (+/- 5 with adjustment hole positions in the snath fitting) to match the NWT Maigs. Fortunately, given my rudimentary blacksmithing skills, the other tangs angles relating to the lay of the blade were not critical. This is because the Maig snath does not have grips so the scythe shaft can be rotated and adjusted in use to get the best blade orientation for the circumstances and ditch profile.
Fittings were taken from a worm-eaten redundant English scythe. I added grass nails to both Maigs after our initial trials at Thorpe Marshes showed their value for preventing weed and roots getting caught in the elbow between blade and snath. I used 30cm long timber screws with the ends reshaped using my now indispensable bucket forge. Timber screws are hardened which gives greater stiffness to the grass nail as compared to mild steel rod, but means they cannot be worked cold as 6 inch nails can.
My initial protype included the small pitch fork attachment I had first seen at the Tree fair. After our initial trails with it at Thorpe marshes I quickly abandoned this Swiss-army scythe concept and removed the fork.. Whilst it was handy to hook cut weed out of the way, I managed to impale and hole my trousers with it in the upper thigh area, a bit too close a near miss for comfort. (The tines were deliberately very blunt with rounded tips so no chance of actually puncturing skin!). Also whilst cutting with the Maig the pitchfork projecting behind me was an obvious hazard too far when working in company. Having a separate fork or krome (drag fork) beside me whilst working is the obvious better solution; even better if picked up and used by an assistant.
Maigs, like regular scythes in meadows, offer the capability to effectively manage small to medium sized areas of wetland in a particular focused way that can deliver results that cannot be achieved by other means.
A good network of maintained drainage channels, of grips, ditches, dykes, cuts and rivers are important features of managed wetlands. These channels function to both feed in and distribute flood water, and to drain down marshes and fens when required for maintenance and reed cutting. Periodic selective clearing of ‘weed’ colonising and eventually choking channels is a key part of this.
Whilst most of the semi-natural wetland that remains is managed principally for wildlife, rather than agriculture or commercial reed production, the management of water levels and seasonal cycles of vegetation cutting remain important as this determines the particular vegetation and habitat composition that develops, and the diversity of wildlife it supports. Water management in wetlands is also important for flood management in the wider landscape.
Maigs and other scythes offer the potential to implement very focused sensitive management where this is appropriate. They are invaluable for conserving remnant fragments of wetland with particularly high botanical and wildlife interest which historically developed from traditional cycles of management.
Machines are often not efficient in small and difficult to access sites. Machinery can clear large areas quickly but lack the finesse of hand tools. Mechanical excavators may bring other other problems such as ground compaction, and potentially compromised biosecurity by inadvertently transferring invasive alien plants and animals from one site to another. Hand powered tools of course avoid the issue of noise and other pollution and are more compatible for use within volunteer groups.
The Maig is used to cut emergent reeds and other ditch vegetation encroaching into the ditch from the sides. It is set up to undercut both shoots and rhizomes to deplete remove as much of the plant’s growth as possible.
The maig is not swung in an arc around the body like a regular scythe. The Maig is worked towards the operator stood on the bankside by pulling in the snath in a series of short slicing/sawing movements. The open hafting angle of 130 facilitates slicing. As with regular scythes, if the blade is sharp, and the right technique applied, it should not require excessive force or exertion to work steadily and methodically across the ditch. In fact, if you pull too enthusiastically and it snags, you are likely to pull yourself into the ditch!
For each run the blade is fed out across the channel as far the shaft will reach (or as far as needed), it is then lowered into the water until it reaches the bottom. The operator then adjusts the blade angle and presentation under water by feel. When undercutting the blade moves over the ditch bottom at a pitch (lay) not dissimilar to that set on a regular scythe for mowing. The blade can also be turned so the tip points downwards for vertical cuts to separate narrow blocks of vegetation which can then be undercut and removed in sections like turves without being entangled with still rooted plants. The maig can also function as a ‘shore knife’ to trim down along the waters edge.
Cut material severed by the maig needs to be removed from the water channel.
The cut material can be deposited on the bank side to allow water to drain from it, and give wildlife caught within it a chance return to the water. The material can be collected some days later and removed to a dump site to avoid compromising the bankside vegetation from the mulching effect of rotting piles of vegetation and by concentrating unwanted nutrients here.
The best practice for the benefit of wildlife is to aim to clear at most 50% of the wetland vegetation in any one season. This can be achieved by clearing short sections, and leaving other sections, or, in larger channels, by clearing one side only in each year. This rotational cutting cycle creates a dynamic mosaic of different habitat structures: from open clear water and trimmed bankside vegetation, to overgrown channels surrounded by taller vegetation. Each offers different habitat opportunities, so overall the mixed structure can support the widest diversity of wildlife.
Maigs and scythes are clearly perfectly suited to creating this structural and habitat variety down to quite a small scale.