Case Study: Wet grassland and rush management for breeding waders

Author: Gavin Thomas
Farm: Chipping Moss, Leagram Estate, Forest of Bowland, Lancashire

Aims:

The primary aim was to restore upland in-bye wet grassland for breeding lapwings, redshanks, oystercatchers, snipe and curlews. By managing rush cover and water levels it was also hoped that the quality of pasture available to grazing livestock would also be greatly improved.

The site is tenant farmed with a sheep and beef system. Livestock numbers are reduced in spring to reduce disturbance to ground-nesting birds but at other times of the year sheep (mules) and cattle (mainly Herefords) are essential for creating the sward structure required for the birds and keeping soft rush cover in check.

Regular advice and guidance was provided by the RSPB’s Bowland Wader Project. This included help with securing funding and suitable contractors.

Management:

The 44ha of meadows and grazing pasture in particular had been under-grazed in the past, leading to dominance of soft rush. In 2003, a programme of annual topping, weed wiping of the soft rush, and aftermath cattle grazing was introduced. Stocking densities were increased outside the bird breeding season in particular with hardy, native Hereford beef cattle to help with aftermath grazing and control of rush re-growth.

Drainage ditches were formerly steep sided, choked with vegetation and drained much of the site. These were opened up and re-profiled to provide shallow muddy edges for wading birds to feed on. Construction of earth dams and sluices now allow high water levels to be maintained on parts of the site at certain times of the year, providing shallow flood habitat for wading birds and wildfowl. ‘Wader scrapes’ – small, shallow-edged features that gradually dry out towards the summer – were also created to provide invertebrate-rich, muddy feeding areas for wading bird chicks.

Raising the water levels has allowed areas of mown rush to be flooded and killed off. Clearing ditches, re-profiling their edges and maintaining high ditch water levels has reduced the risk of losing sheep in the ditches. The ditches also provide a source of drinking water for livestock. The ditch management was undertaken by a local contractor and also by an RSPB contractor using the ‘spoil spreader’, a machine that is very quick, efficient and cost-effective. It also removes the necessity to deal with large amounts of spoil as this is spread thinly across the site by the machine.

Public access to the site has been improved by banking up parts of the footpath running across the site. Crossing points for farm machinery and stock have been created across the ditches for the tenant farmer to help with livestock management across wet areas. All work has been undertaken by local contractors and farmers and funded by a range of local organisations as well as through the stewardship schemes.

The wet nature of the Lancashire uplands means that ground conditions can be tricky for getting machinery on site, especially to top rushes in early autumn. It can also mean that weed wiping opportunities can be missed due to other farming tasks taking precedence. These problems were solved only by favourable weather!

The grazing and rush cutting/weed wiping regime is working well for livestock and wading birds. Weather and resultant ground conditions are the main obstacles to annual management being completed. Rush management is far easier if it can be mown annually.

Achievements:

In dry summers the rush cuttings (and coarser grasses) have been baled and used as bedding for livestock.

With the new regime, the quality of grazing available to stock is greatly improved. Gathering of sheep is easier with less tall, dense rush on site.

A rapid response to habitat work has seen lapwings, redshanks, oystercatchers, snipe and curlews all increase on the site. From just one pair in 2003, the lapwing population alone has increased to up to 15 pairs annually. Creation of larger areas of seasonal floodwater has also increased the site’s attractiveness to winter waterfowl and passage migrants. In particular the site is now regularly used by large flocks of curlew, with up to 350 present in March 2006, and smaller numbers of whimbrel that pass through this part of Lancashire en route to their Icelandic breeding grounds in spring. The pasture and meadow management also resulted in skylarks returning to breed on the site one year and the grassland management also provides good habitat for brown hares.

‘Opening up’ of the sward has allowed a more diverse range of grasses and some wildflowers to recover as they are no longer shaded out by tall soft rush.

Digging of ponds and scrapes and the ditch restoration work has greatly improved conditions for many species of dragonfly and damselfly and aquatic vegetation communities. This new network of wet features supports a wealth of wildlife including amphibians.

Advice for other farmers

Try not to allow rushes ‘get away’! Annual topping allows the rush cover to be managed more easily. Three or four years of uncut rush takes a lot of management especially when removing cuttings from site.

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