Silence comes in the wake of a Didcot-bound train. Sounds take a few moments to stage a comeback. But soon enough, I can hear tall meadow grasses rustling again, just feet away. On this gentlest of autumn mornings, I’m part of a scene that is part-tranquil, part-purposeful. Around me, fellow rakers busy themselves, piling and stacking what has been cut by scythes. They follow at a safe distance behind experts, whose rhythmical progress suggests another age. They deal with the high growth without a hint of fuss. Every few minutes, the scythe-wielders pause. It’s then that I hear the contact of whetstone against metal; two-toned, a curiously soft brush, as hard sharpener meets even harder blade.
Even though we are an enthusiastic group of sixteen volunteers, for minutes on end our scything and raking is done in a respectful near-silence. There are bursts of quiet chatter, but our work is never held up for long. There’s a real sense of purpose about the morning’s task. And rightly so, when the completion of it before autumn’s end is going to make all the difference for one of Radley’s special birds.
Lapwings are the reason we are here this morning. It’s their spring nesting territory we’re preparing. They are ground-nesting birds, with a need for an area of grass that offers only patchy cover. We are cutting things back to ground level this morning, work that can only be done at the end of the growing season. Remarkably, where this work is being carried out has been restored land only for a few years. Less than two decades ago, we simply wouldn’t have been able to stand here – it was still a flooded gravel pit. The dry land on which lapwings have started to nest in recent years is in fact repurposed fly ash deposit from Didcot power station. What a transformation in under twenty years!
Lapwings are absent from the scene this morning. It’s not a busy day for feathered creatures full stop, truth be told. The small birds are lying low. I spot a kestrel hovering in the distance, and a lone raven heading towards the west, all bulk and single-mindedness. Red kites drift over now and then, but it’s still too early for the Scandinavian redwings that will soon be gobbling up the berries on the bushes that surround the cleared space. It feels like a quiet time – quite the contrast with those springtime months when the squeaks and bubbles of patrolling lapwings will fill the air. With little to hear from above today, I’m able to pick up the gentle swishing sound made by a bank vole, down by my feet. It’s moving towards safety through the freshly scythed grass.
Joining one of the volunteer sessions showed me so much more than how the concerted efforts of a willing band can transform the prospects of a threatened species. I came away with a better understanding of the care and patience that lies behind making Radley Lakes a better place for wildlife. I saw how a traditional skill is being kept alive by dextrous experts – learning along the way that a scythe’s blade is a chine, and the staff is a snath. It was a joy to watch experts make a tough task look effortless. This was a morning of human intervention at its best – a helping hand for a species on the conservation Red List. I’ll remember that when I return next spring to see the lapwings back on their territory.
Author: Paul Gamble, Radley resident since 1990 and current MA Travel and Nature Writing student