Case Study: Restoration of rank wetland habitats to benefit waders

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 of permanent pasture and grass/clover leys. The in-bye on the lower ground runs down to the South Medwin river and it is here, on the river floodplains, that marshy grassland dominates, with scattered remnants of lowland raised bog nearby.

Over numerous years the field had become wetter, as drains stopped being maintained. This, in combination with reduced grazing levels and no cutting, resulted in the dominance of marshy grassland vegetation (primarily soft rush) and grasses (e.g. tufted hair-grass). The vegetation had become too tall and dense to be used by waders, as confirmed by a 2013 RSPB breeding wader survey which surveyed the entire valley within which Anston sits. No waders were breeding on the wetland, but curlews, lapwings, redshanks, snipe and oystercatchers were all recorded on adjacent fields. The decision was made to try and improve the habitat, knowing that birds were nearby to take advantage of improvements.

Management:

The RSPB provided advice, including the importance of cutting and grazing in order to keep wetland vegetation sufficiently low in height, in order to attract breeding and feeding waders.

In September 2014, AMW Arboreal were contracted to carry out one day’s work with a Softrak, a low ground-pressure vehicle equipped with a forage harvester, chipper, reed cutting head and heather cutter. This allows management of rank rush, reed, heather and scrub whilst protecting wetland surfaces. It has an average speed of 1-2 mph and can cut between one-third and half a hectare per day.

Around 0.5 ha of dense rush pasture was cut and removed, with cuttings piled together to compost over the following year (a composting licence may be required for larger jobs). This work was undertaken as part of a management agreement between Dr Allison and the RSPB.

The following summer (2015), Dr Allison used a tractor-mounted flail mower to cut re-growth and access other uncut areas, using the open areas and ‘rides’ that had been cut into the dense rush by the Softrak. As a result of the benefits from this initial work, the decision was made to scale up the management for the remainder of the wetland, and a further 6 days of rush cutting with the Softrak were carried out in March 2016. This time, cuttings were left on site to mulch down, as Dr Allison felt there would be benefits for soil fertility (see below).

Dr Allison used a Kverneland FXJ flail topper, which was found to have benefits over the more conventional whale tail (hammer) head flail, or long swinging blade vertical axis type pasture topper. The FXJ is fitted with pairs of swinging "J" shaped flail blades with intermediate fan lifter fingers. The blades cut and shred the dense rush more efficiently than other machines, with near double the forward travel speed being achieved. The shredding action pulps the fibrous vegetation which was blown from the rear of the machine and left on the surface. The deposited shredded material composted down far quicker than when cut by the farms other topping machines, and quantity and variation of flora and fauna species regrowth was noticeably improved. Additionally, shredding and allowing the rush vegetation to compost on the surface returns potash to the soil, a distinct advantage over removing the cut vegetation. Carting away the vegetation ultimately reduces the fertility of what is already poor land.

Wetlands are problematic and in certain situations can potentially be dangerous. Dense cover can prevent ground visibility, and many farmers are concerned about getting equipment stuck as a result. Similarly, livestock safety becomes an issue where there are unknown or obscured ditches which may prevent grazing.

By removing the dense rush with the Softrak, Dr Allison had a much better understanding of ground conditions i.e. the location of ditches and waterlogged areas. This enabled him to access the site with the quad during drier weather, and gave him the confidence to put sheep out in greater numbers.

The wetland has been brought back into a condition that will allow further follow-up management during dry periods in the future.

Benefits and costs

One of the benefits to arise is increased grazing. During drier periods, sheep are now put out onto the site, allowing grazing of grasses and herbs previously hidden by the rush pasture. There is more grass than was expected; it has taken the removal of rushes to ‘open up’ the sward and make apparent.

A second benefit is access. The micro-topography of the site is now clear to see; standard machinery (quads, tractors) can now enter the site. Previously, the site was a no-go zone due to fear of getting stuck.

Continued rush management and grazing will also benefit the farm business in the longer-term; it will improve habitats for target species within agri-environment schemes, and demonstrates a willingness on part of Dr Allison to maximise his management for wildlife. In time, this should enhance his chances of entering future agri-environment schemes. Removing tall dense rush will increase evapotranspiration, allowing the wetland to dry out more quickly during the summer, in turn making site management requirements easier to undertake (i.e. machinery and livestock access).

In terms of costs, the Softrak work was funded by a local RSPB budget for conservation work in South Lanarkshire. This funding stream was earmarked for trialling novel management techniques that couldn’t be funded through existing agri-environment options. The contractors used cost £360 per day (plus haulage).

In addition, fluke is present in the area and it is acknowledged that grazing these areas may increase the chances of infection.

Tips for other farmers

Due to the high costs involved, a Softrak is likely to only be appropriate in certain circumstances. At Anston, the farm lies within a valley that supports important populations of lapwings, curlews, snipe, redshanks and oystercatchers. It would make sense that the two following criteria are met if considering using a Softrak elsewhere:

a) priority species are adjacent to the site so there is a high chance of utilising the improved habitat

b) it should only be used on farms that possess suitable equipment for follow-up management (topping, grazing) as well as a clear understanding and commitment on the part of the farmer or land manager to undertake the follow-up management.

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

Author: Janet Fairclough
Farm: Farms in Baldersdale and Lunedale, North Pennines, Durham

The North Pennines is a special place, providing excellent habitats for a wide range of important wildlife. The landscape has the highest density of breeding waders in mainland UK and more than 80% of England’s black grouse. As a result, the area has huge potential to help boost populations of nationally declining upland birds including lapwings, curlews and black grouse.

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.

Aims:

Funds from a Teesdale man’s legacy are being used to create habitats for breeding waders and black grouse, by controlling areas of dense soft rush and creating scrapes for breeding waders, and planting small areas with trees for black grouse.

Thomas Raine originally came from Teesdale and always regarded the area as “God’s own country”. He very generously left some money in his will to the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) to help protect the area he loved. The Durham Branch of CPRE decided that it would be appropriate to spend some of the legacy by helping the RSPB to increase the amount of wildlife-rich habitat on farmland in the area.

As a result, the RSPB have been working with three farms in Baldersdale and Lunedale. On these farms, we have funded the cost of hiring a local contractor to control dense soft rush in fields that will be suitable for breeding waders once the rush cover has been significantly reduced.

Management:

Soft rush (Juncus effusus) is an important aspect of the upland landscape. It provides shelter for stock, particularly young lambs, and is an important habitat for various birds, invertebrates and insects.

Traditionally, soft rush stems were soaked in fat and used in household lamps as wicks, as it was a cheaper alternative to candlelight. This practice was revived during the Second World War in some rural areas.

Unfortunately, soft rush can also be invasive and troublesome. It spreads by rhizomes (underground plant stems capable of producing the shoot and root systems of a new plant) and each seed head can produce more than 8,000 seeds every year, which can remain dormant within the soil for at least 20 years until the conditions are right for them to germinate.

It can spread rapidly to form extensive, dense stands, and is tough and waxy so most livestock will avoid eating it. Once a soft rush infestation covers more than a third of a field, the value of that field is significantly reduced for both breeding waders and grazing livestock.

There are several methods for controlling soft rush, the main ones being cutting, herbicides, grazing and re-seeding. Sometimes a combination of several techniques is utilised. The choice will be influenced by a range of factors such as the topography, botanical diversity, ground conditions, cost and proposed management after control.

In the lowlands, rush is often managed using a combination of cutting in late summer, followed by weed wiping with herbicide 4-6 weeks afterwards. In the uplands however, plants grow much slower and we do not get enough rush re-growth following cutting to be able to follow up with weed wiping before the end of the growing season.

Up here in the hills, we therefore weed wipe without cutting the rush first. This method is proving to be successful in the North Pennines. The weed wiper is towed behind a quad bike, and has a rotating brush which is set to such a height that it applies the herbicide directly to the rush stem. This enables us to control the rush without damaging the grass or any botanical diversity in the field. Just four weeks after weed wiping, the soft rush has started to die off.

We have funded weed wiping on about 32ha of soft rush across the three farms this autumn and are planning to monitor the success of this work by carrying out breeding waders surveys next spring.

Now that the 2014 rush control work has been completed, we are talking to farmers in the area about using the remaining legacy money to fund some more habitat creation. We are currently preparing to plant a small area of scattered trees on a farm in Baldersdale for black grouse this winter, and will be on the look out for a suitable site to create some scrapes next year.

Case Study: Managing for breeding waders on Shetland

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 of semi-improved and improved grazing and a few hectares suitable for growing crops. The whole unit is organic, and now carries a flock of 600 Shetland ewes and a breeding herd of 30 Shetland cows. Lambs and beef are sold to Lidgates Butcher in London during September to November each year and the wholefood shop in Lerwick, Scoop, sells lamb in season and mutton and beef all year.

Management:

The organic status of the farm and the environment are important for marketing the meat, wool and a holiday cottage. So maximising benefits to biodiversity are important but this has had to be balanced against the sustainability of the unit and the ability to finish native stock on as much home grown feeding as possible. Grazing animals are either removed for 6 weeks or at a reduced stocking level for 3 months during the wader breeding season.

Stocking levels have to be kept low in order to make the organic system work on this unit so wet grassland for wader management fits in with the farming system fairly well.

Greylag geese numbers have increased and have a detrimental impact on adjacent silage fields.

Achievements:

This is an option that works well from an agricultural point of view on a unit where stocking densities are lower than average. Topping of rushes is needed in some areas and this is fitted in after the birds have finished breeding but before the ground gets too soft. The influx of greylag geese is a disadvantage that farmers will want to consider.

Uradale Farm is also a High Nature Value (HNV) farm, and farmer Ronnie Eunson has signed up to the HNV Manifesto – calling on governments, HNV farmers and crofters, farming groups, environmental organisations and citizens to work collectively to ensure the very best support for nature in HNV areas across the UK. Find out more about HNV farming and listen to farmer Ronnie Eunson talk about his farm here.

http://www.aalmerk.com

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.