Bracken-Busters

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 21/5/20

People said it would take years for the cows to make an impact at Low Airie. It’s a big piece of ground, and I don’t have many beasts to graze it. I had made my peace with the idea that I was trying to paint a hayshed with a toothbrush – it was going to take a decade or more to get where I wanted to be, and the short-term nature of my lease make it quite possible that I will be up and away long before the hill is back in health.

In truth, the cows have already made a noticeable dent, and it’s a rare thrill to see them working on the rushes and trampling down the new bracken. They have two hundred acres to play with, but by choice or natural inclination, they’ve decided to hang around in less than a quarter of the space available to them. Aside from one notable escape, they’ve never left that fifty acre patch or shown any inclination to explore the area I fenced off in March and April. The satellite tags reveal that the huge majority of their time is spent in three places near the gate where they arrived – three places which amount to around five acres. When they leave one of these places, the chances are that they’re simply heading to another. Put ten cows in five acres for almost three weeks, and it’s no surprise you’ll see a change.

Ignoring the fact that most of the hill is so far untouched by cattle, it’s tempting to zoom in on the work that has been done. One of their favourite places is a wet flush in the peat, surrounded by rushes and bog myrtle. They have knocked the bottom out of this ground, munching the greenery down to a short, bristly carpet. In going to check them yesterday, I pushed a snipe out of this flush, and the bird flew in such a way as to suggest that it had chicks nearby. The youngsters are so well camouflaged that you could walk past a thousand and never see a single one, but it wasn’t hard to imagine them hunkered down in the stubs of old marsh thistle and the tatty threads of spearwort. The cows had made a perfect little home for them, and while it’s far too soon to claim credit for the success of any breeding birds, I was proud to think of the work I’m at.

I bought in hay from my neighbours last summer, and they sold at such a price that I was glad to take five hundred bales. That’s more than I had space to store, so some of them went in a stack at the back of the tractor shed. I hadn’t realised that the roof was leaking, and when I came to uncover the bales in March, I found that many were black and sodden with rain. I had to throw some away, but most of the rest are good enough to be fed out provided they go soon. So I’ve been taking a few of these mouldy bales out to the hill when I go, and I’ve been careful to dump them on the dry knowes where the bracken grows.

Now the grass has come, the cattle have little use for this extra feeding, but they come for it all the same. They butt and mash the darkened bales, and they sift through the flakes to eat the best. In doing this, they crunch their boots through the bracken and break up the deep litter where the new green fiddleheads are growing. Bracken has done well in the four decades since this hill was last grazed. It’s a domineering plant, and it quickly smothers the life out all competing vegetation. In another forty years without management, the whole hill would be a relentless swathe of bracken, with little else to show for itself.

You can spray the fronds or cut the stems, but bracken is a tough plant and doesn’t mind being knocked about once or twice. The oldest and best option for bracken control is to have cattle walking back and forth upon it, crushing the stems and flattening the new growth when it comes. By laying out hay bales (and placing a few mineral lick blocks) on beds of bracken, I’m making a conscious effort to keep my cows trampling back and forth through the stuff. This would work best in winter because bracken hates the cold and heavy hooves expose the sensitive roots to frost and snow, but summer grazing can also do a power of good. In just over a fortnight, the cows have churned up almost two acres of bad bracken and reduced the new spring growth to mush. I have no doubt that it will be back and more work will be required, but here is a neat and satisfying little strand to this project in its early stages.

 

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