The image of Aidan Turner, stripped to his rippled lower abs, having worked up a sweat swiping with his scythe in an idyllic Cornish meadow, has become an iconic one in popular culture.
In scything circles, “Poldark” means two things, says Andi Rickard. “It could mean someone with no idea what they’re doing, or someone who mows shirtless. But us ladies forgive him.”
Rickard knows her scything stuff. Not only does she run the Somerset Scythe School, but she is all-UK scything champion, having beaten male competitors this year in a contest that measures speed and cut quality.
“Anything a strimmer or motorised mower can do, a scythe can do better, often faster and without burning fossil fuels.”
“I was a bit slower than the men but, boy, was the quality of cut better. Without wanting to sound too conceited,” she says.
In high demand, Rickard is booked to teach at least one scything course every week until September, tutoring a range of people from retired couples, those looking to escape the rat race, community groups who volunteer to maintain areas of woodland or nature reserves and people who just want an old-fashioned way to mow their lawn.
“That’s how lawns were cut in the old days before they invented the motor mower,” Rickard points out. “My blades are sharp enough to shave with. I usually say, ‘If it’s longer than my beard, I can cut it’, and I’m not a bearded lady.
“Anything a strimmer or motorised mower can do, a scythe can do better, often faster and without burning fossil fuels. It’s better for the environment, needs no special certification for use and keeps you fit.”
The biggest difference between motors and people power is the sound.
“You can still hear life continuing on around you,” Rickard says. “You’re immersed in nature, you don’t have to shut it all out with ear defenders. There’s a eureka moment I get with students, where the blade goes through the grass, the grass falls over and it makes this gorgeous sound. That’s when I know they’re hooked.”
But is the fact more people are picking up the ancient tool motivated by topless Poldark?
Steve Tomlin, who represents the Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland (SABI), is sceptical.
“The Poldark scenes and media attention were a mixed blessing,” he says. “Although it gave the scythe mass exposure, it portrayed it as being hard work and inefficient – neither of which is true.”
Scythe production ended in the UK in 1987, and most used today are made in Austria by a company called Schröckenfux, which has been making them for almost 500 years.
The growing popularity has led to scything festivals popping up across the country. And it’s not just a rural pursuit either. Ida Fabrizio holds courses on Walthamstow Marshes not far from central London and Tomlin teaches in his home city of Manchester. “Scything appeals to a wide range of people for different reasons,” Tomlin explains. “There has been an increased interest in managing and creating wildflower meadows since a report highlighted that we have lost 97 per cent of that habitat.
“Scythes allow people to manage land sensitively, including roadside verges, community orchards, churchyards and other areas which are important habitats but unsuitable for powered machinery. The quiet nature of the scythe allows people to work while enjoying the outdoor environment and also makes the activity very sociable as people can chat at the same time. I recently taught scything for an NHS mental hospital in Nottingham which plans to use scything as part of the rehabilitation of patients.”
Practitioners also believe this isn’t a fad for folk with a patch of overgrown land. Rickard explains that some councils have started shifting towards more traditional methods.
“With a council-maintained area, they come in with strimmers four times a year and leave a mulch of matted grass on top of everything,” she says. “The only thing that can grow through that are the dominant grasses and the big weeds like docks, nettles, hogweed, thistles.
“There’s huge interest at the moment in increasing sites for pollinators – wildflower meadows, verges, that sort of thing – and the scythe is perfect for that. Allow light in and there will usually be a residual seedbank in the ground and the wildflowers will come.
“Once you’ve got an area established you can reduce maintenance. I think there’s five councils nationally now who have reduced their mowing regime to once a year. They’re saving a huge amount of money and diversity is increasing.”
Scything is also a benefit for wildlife, Rickard explains.
“Firstly, you’re not working at a frantic pace. If you see something in the grass ahead of you, you can stop, see what it is and go around it. I mow in areas where there are ground-nesting birds. They usually give you some indication you’re getting close to the nest and you just leave that bit.
“If you do hit something – unfortunately I do from time to time hit frogs or toads – it’s usually a clean dispatch for them rather than being shredded. But the thing is you can generally see things and avoid them.”
Poldark would be proud.
“The Poldark effect has mostly been in the media,” Rickard reminds us. “But having said that, I have had a few women who have contacted me asking can they buy their husband a scythe as a present in the hope, perhaps, that it’ll give him Poldark’s physique.”