Rush pastures

Rush pastures

Rush pasture is a common habitat of upland enclosed grasslands particularly in-bye, allotment or intake land.

These pastures frequently contain a mixture of grassland and wetland habitats.

What

Rush pasture is a common habitat of upland enclosed grasslands particularly in-bye, allotment or intake land. These pastures frequently contain a mixture of grassland and wetland habitats. Rush pasture is the main breeding habitat for wading birds such as lapwings, curlews, redshanks and snipe, and other birds such as skylarks. They are also used by amphibians, mammals and insects which make use of the damp conditions and shelter.

Purple moorgrass and rush pastures (known as culm grassland in Devon and Cornwall, rhôs pasture in Wales and rough ground in Northern Ireland) occur on poorly drained soils in lowland areas of high rainfall. They are found predominantly in south-west England, south and west Wales, south-west Scotland, and the west edge of Northern Ireland, particularly in Fermanagh. These rare habitats supports a wide range of wildlife including breeding waders, reed buntings, small pearl-bordered and marsh fritillary butterflies, and plants such as marsh violets, devil’s-bit scabious and ragged robin.

Ideal diverse rush structure

Why

Rush pastures provide ideal habitat for breeding waders. Damp soils provide excellent conditions for many insects and feeding grounds for birds. A mosaic of tall and short vegetation provides the best wildlife habitat. Different wader species will select fields with suitable sward heights for their needs, for example lapwings prefer a short sward and few scattered tussocks that will conceal their nests and chicks whilst leaving their all-round view uninhibited, whereas snipe prefer taller vegetation with some shorter areas for feeding.

Scattered rush cover is beneficial as the tussocks can provide shelter for grazing stock, particularly lambs, and benefit wildlife such as brown hares. A mosaic of vegetation with different heights can also create excellent conditions for common lizards and adders. However, if rushes become too dominant this can make livestock grazing difficult and the wildlife habitat can be compromised.

Purple moorgrass and rush pastures are very rare lowland habitats, with only about 56,000 hectares left in the UK. They are highly susceptible to agricultural modifications and reclamation, so are easily damaged. These marshy habitats can be exceptionally rich in plants, as well as supporting many insect and bird species.

ragged robin rush pastures

How

Rush pastures are predominantly used for livestock grazing. Rush control, scrub control and water level management may also be required. Management practices such as muck spreading, rolling and weed topping should be avoided during the bird breeding season.

Grazing

Cattle or mixed grazing will produce the best sward conditions for wildlife. Use low level grazing to create a sward with a variety of vegetation heights and some tussocks. Rotational grazing or cutting can create similar sward conditions. A short, uniform sward is not ideal. Where rare or threatened species are present, sward structure can be tailored to individual species needs.

Grazing should be avoided or be very light when birds are nesting. When grazing is required it is best to use quiet stock such as suckler cows and their calves.

Heavy summer grazing can reduce flowering which is important for pollinators, including butterflies and moths. It is important to remove annual vegetation growth to prevent an increase in coarse grasses and rushes.

Look at our advice note on Livestock Husbandry to reduce impact on insect species.

Rush management

Rush management may be needed to retain both the grazing capacity of land and suitable habitat for breeding waders. Aim for overall rush cover of less than 30%. Scattered rushes are more beneficial for wildlife than large continuous blocks.

Carry out rush management outside of the bird breeding season (August onwards). The amount or location of rushes can be altered to benefit particular bird or other wildlife species. Care is needed on these wet pastures as it is easy for machinery to cause soil compaction, which can result in spread of rushes.

Topping

Topping after the last wader chicks have fledged is the most effective way to control rush infestation. Ideally the cuttings should be removed. Cattle or ponies can be used to eat off re-growth and to break up tussocks through trampling. If aftermath grazing is not available, carry out a second cut four to eight weeks later.

It may be impractical to cut rushes in the wettest areas. These areas may be best left if they form a small proportion of the field, or they can be controlled by cattle trampling during aftermath grazing.

Herbicide control

Herbicide control can be considered where other measures have failed. The approved chemicals for rush control are all broad-spectrum herbicides which can destroy other non-target plants.

In lowland areas, top rushes in August or after the last wader chicks have fledged. When rush re-growth stands higher than the surrounding vegetation, apply herbicides using a weed-wiper.

In upland areas, rush growth may not be rapid enough for topping and weed-wiping in the same year. It is possible to either weed-wipe without topping first, or top one year and weed-wipe re-growth the following year.

More careful rush management may be required on lowland purple moorgrass and rush pastures with high plant and invertebrate interests. It is best to seek further advice on these areas as a more small-scale specific approach may be needed. Extra care is needed to avoid scalping or breaking up mosses, sedges or other delicate plants and cut material will need to be removed.

Water level management

Rush pastures are rich in insect larvae and provide vital feeding areas for breeding waders and their chicks. Try to maintain high water tables or surface standing water to provide soft soils during the breeding season.

On drier fields, wetter areas can be provided by creating temporary shallow pools or scrapes. These provide shallow water and muddy areas in which birds can probe and search for food. Scrapes can be created by reducing drainage from natural depressions, or by excavating shallow pools. See the Wet features section for more advice.

Lowland purple moorgrass and rush pastures require damp or waterlogged conditions, so it is vital to maintain water levels. Any drainage or lowering of the water table could have a detrimental effect on key species. On drying sites, scrub invasion may also be a problem (see our scrub advice).

Controlling scrub

Scattered scrub can be important for some wildlife. It can provide berries for birds such as black grouse and habitat for amphibians, reptiles and insects. For example, the brown hairstreak butterfly lays its eggs on young blackthorn bushes and removal or over-cutting can be highly damaging. Scrub invasion can be a problem and may need to be controlled.

Burning or swaling

Burning purple moorgrass and rush pasture is a traditional management practice in some areas. The heather and grass burning regulations should always be followed and advice sought from your relevant statutory agency. Only part of a site should be burned at a time, using fire breaks and beaters to ensure the fire does not get out of control. Thrashing the area prior to lighting the fire can encourage insects to move out of the location. Care also needs to be taken in areas where snakes and lizards occur. Burning can reduce the litter and tussocks of purple moorgrass allowing other grasses and sedges to grow. Livestock can be used to graze the new growth creating gaps in the sward which helps wildflower seed germination and provides habitat for other species.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, adult, female in breeding habitat pasture, Northumberland, May

In practice

Here are some useful case studies and articles about how farmers are putting Farm Wildlife into practice on their farms

Case Study: Restoration of rank wetland habitats to benefit waders

By Kathryn Smith | 4th August 2016

Author: Dan Brown, Dr Duncan Allison & Sarah Bird Farm: Anston Farm, Dunsyre, South Lanarkshire Aims: Anston is a 651 ha mixed upland livestock farm in South Lanarkshire. A variety of habitats can be found across the farm. The hill ground includes dry heath and acid grassland, whilst the upper in-bye fields contain a mixture […]

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Case Study: A technique for rush control creates habitats for wading birds and black grouse in the North Pennines

By Kathryn Smith | 10th October 2014

Author: Janet Fairclough Farm: Farms in Baldersdale and Lunedale, North Pennines, Durham Aims: In the North Pennine Dales, the RSPB are working with farmers and land managers to enhance farm wildlife, concentrating on five dales; the Allen Valleys, Baldersdale, Lunedale and Upper Teesdale. The North Pennines is a special place, providing excellent habitats for a […]

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Case Study: Managing for breeding waders on Shetland

By Kathryn Smith | 26th September 2014

Author: Sue White Farm: Uradale Farm, Shetland Aims: Breeding waders are very much iconic species in Shetland. This particular feature forms an integral part of a holistic plan and along with mown grassland for wildlife management benefits breeding waders. Uradale Farm covers 750ha of mostly heather moorland. On the lower ground there are about 200ha […]

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Case Study: Wet grassland and rush management for breeding waders

By Kathryn Smith | 4th August 2013

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. […]

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