Holy wildlife cut to scythe; Church havens go back to future.
A RENAISSANCE in the traditional scythe is being harnessed by churchyard conservationists in North Wales The tool is seen as a zero-carbon alternative to managing weeds and grass - and is more people-friendly than noisy strimmers.
Converts include two North Wales who bought their own scythes after being impressed by their capabilities.
Both were involved in the Flintshire Living Churchyards (FLC), run by North Wales Wildlife Trust (NWWT) and backed by rural agency Cadwyn Clwyd.
Seven churches have signed up to a project which is likely to be rolled out into Denbighshire next year.
"Last summer a group of volunteers all used scythes to clear vegetation in the graveyard at Llanasa," said Ieuan Edwards, NWWT's community officer.
"You could hear the birds singing and people talking with each other. "It was like a throwback to a bygone age when the whole community would come out to work together."
" The volunteers were trained to use scythes by Andrea Gilpin. She works Caring for God's Acre (CfGA), a charity which advises churchyard conservation projects, including the Sacred Space initiative in Wrexham.
Like most scythe users, she advocates the Austrian style which, with its sprung steel blade, is around 40% lighter than the "English" scythe.
An experienced cutter can usually clear one acre per day.
"I'm 5ft and I can manage five hours-a-day," said Andrea.
"They're pretty efficient - at the annual Scythe Festival, they're raced against strimmers and the result is usually close."
CfGA takes its name from the proclamation by the Welsh King Hywel Dda, in 943, that one acre should be set aside for burial.
It is continuing the work of the Living Churchyards project which aimed to give new life to walled burial grounds that have resisted agricultural progress.
In North East Wales, it's estimated that 98% of "natural herbage" sites have been lost since WW11.
Last year the FLC project persuaded Flintshire County Council to halt grass-cutting on the old churchyard at St James, Holywell.
Within four weeks wildflowers bloomed on a site reputed to be the last resting place of 40,000 departed souls.
The project is being repeated this summer, with pathways cut through the meadow for visitors.
On Tuesday CfGA discussed future developments at a oneday conference, "The Beautiful Burial Ground", at Plas Tan y Bwylch, Maentwrog.
Speakers included John Winton from Churches Tourism Network Wales, a charity which encourages churches to remain open beyond hours of worship.
Since it was set up 13 years ago, the proportion of churches doing just that has risen from 20% to around 55%. Some stay open from dawn to dusk.
Mr Winton labelled churches which kept their doors shut as "outrageously selfish".
"Those that opened up have found it beneficial and re-affirming," he said.
Churches and chapels in Wales receive around 3.5m visits each year. As well as worshippers, they attract specialist interest groups, such as stained glass enthusiasts and people researching their family trees. But a larger group are "accidental" tourists who stumble across these ancient buildings.
"You only have to look at the number of locations with the Llan prefix to realise Wales has a treasure trove of these fascinating places," said Mr Winton.
Wild flowers bloom at St James Church, Holywell
Picture: CADWYN CLWYD