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Hand-Cutting Heather

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Hard work for small rewards, but the effort should be worth it – this cut is a square L-shape, made of two 7m x 3m rectangles and took fifteen minutes to make. By the end of the morning there were seven of these across five acres of uniform heather.

I’ve tried several times to write about heather cutting on this blog. In my opinion, I usually fail because it’s such a massive topic and I inevitably try to pack too much in to a short article of 1000 words or less. Having spent the last four years working on a review of heather cutting for The Heather Trust (and now under a new guise with the Moorland Forum), I’ve travelled around the country talking to people who manage their heather (for whatever reason) using machinery. A summary of all this work is on the Heather Trust website and there is more to come, but it’s worth putting up a quick blog article on a recent attempt to cut heather by hand – well, with a brushcutter.

Most serious-minded grouse folk will scoff at the idea of managing heather with a brushcutter other than in making middens and laying paths to and from butts. I quite agree – it’s small beer and it’s not much fun, but in an environment where any management is better than none (and the alternative on some parts of our hill is indeed “none”), it’s better to make a small impact than no impact at all.

A good cutting head with four blades makes short of work of heather up to pencil thickness, and trials on our ground in 2012 showed that the regeneration is superb. The blades get a clean cut, and when you work early enough in the back end you can see the first signs of regrowth within six weeks – little shoots from cut stems. The obvious setback is the fact that this is slow, arduous work. Based on my experiences last weekend, I reckon you could satisfactorily cut anything between two and four acres of mature heather in a day – a fraction of what is possible with fire or a tractor mulcher. It may be a drop in the ocean for many, and the potential is limited still further by another consideration.

There is a certain kind of heather which is perfectly suited to brushcutting. It’s tall and extremely dense – there might be ten thin straw-like stems in a 6” square patch, and the canopy is so tight that there is nothing but a few fallen leaves and scraps of litter at ground level. This stuff is ideal – the brushcutter flies through it, tossing the litter away from the cut with long, scything passes to create a short, even stubble (see picture above).

Unfortunately, this wonderful heather is not the norm in Galloway, and what little we have is interspersed amongst far more problematic types. Much of the degenerate stuff splays out like a dead octopus – the gnarled old branches till and create a mat of horizontal stems (usually under a mattress of moss) which are murder to tackle. This stuff is a cutting nightmare, and even the best intentions risk doing little more than just making a mess. A large machine can make a better and more even impression, but in situations like these, fire is the only reasonable means of management – older plants tend not to respond to cutting with much enthusiasm anyway.

Consideration is also due to the trash, which after cutting will vary from a few light straws to a dense mat of dry moss, stick and grass. On soggy ground, the moss will often bind the whole lot into a moist compost that can make a nice seedbed for new heather plants, but too much stick and the litter becomes a mesh of grey bones which will smother out regeneration for decades to come. I suppose you could rake it up and bundle it away, but this is crossing into a grey area of overlap with horticulture. All cutting management will generate trash, but the effect is more pronounced with a brushcutter because you are fighting the undergrowth at first hand – every decapitated tump of star moss is another jarring blow to elbows and shoulders.

Working on small paths and patterns, I’ve found that the standing heather along the edge of your cut will naturally fall in blur the hard, vertical edges. Unless you cut double or even treble thickness with the brushcutter, you might soon find that your cuts simply smother themselves into non-existence. RSPB contractors at Llyn Brenig in North Wales found this a few years ago while trying to create narrow stripes of brood-rearing habitat in deep heather for black grouse. The cuts looked great at the time, but 18 months later the sides had collapsed and all of their costly work had disappeared. Perhaps this is the final answer to the question “how small is too small?”

There is way too much information here for a single blog article, but suffice it to say that I was quite impressed by the ground I covered in just two or three hours of cutting at the weekend. I targeted my work carefully on a marginal area where grouse are only occasionally found, and that effort might draw in a prospective breeding pair. In due course, there might be a single extra covey in August (although perhaps not in 2017) – irrespective of game bags, that would be generous repayment for half a day’s work. I will keep an eye on the cuts and report back if/when grouse start to use them.

Is all this meaningful beyond the realm of experiment and exuberant enthusiasm? Yes, I honestly think it is. Cutting with a brushcutter would be even more meaningful if it was allied with burning and larger scale management, allowing you to carve out nice features like hawk hurdles, radiator cuts and wind scoops which are tricky (if not impossible) with fire and tractors. I also took the time to run the brushcutter through a grassy, mossy patch for half an hour so that I’d be able to compare the regeneration when it comes through. The picture below shows what a nightmare the trash became. More to come, and perhaps another long article on cutting by hand in due course.

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What we’re trying to avoid – dense mats of dead heather and moss litter which will probably smother regeneration – this stuff is almost inevitable when cutting on damp ground.
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