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Under bracken there's gold...

Sheep removing any chance of woodland regeneration. Beyond them, and another fence, trees are coming through.

There was an interesting, slightly Brexit related, article on the BBC news this week. It was about a farmer asking to use banned chemicals to keep on top of bracken. The bracken is growing on ground too steep for the farmer to cut it with machinery and too steep for cattle to trample it. It strikes me though that perhaps it’d be better left. The fact that few sheep are wandering through inhibiting the next stage of ecological succession should not provide license to start using banned chemicals on the land.

The article suggests that by not ‘managing’ the bracken the hillside will become a ‘wasteland’. That’s a native woodland to you and me. The article also links the bracken to ticks and Lyme disease. It’s not bracken that harbours ticks, it’s deer. The ticks do get brushed off the deer as they push through bracken, but both deer and bracken need managing in different ways. The article is disappointingly biased for a BBC article as it then goes on to get comment from a representative of AgriSpray, hardly a neutral! And here you have it, they are proposing spraying chemicals onto a steep Scottish hillside from an aeroplane to control bracken. How out of touch with what is really needed can you be?

Bracken is a woodland understory plant. It’s a pretty tenacious one as it spreads by underground rhizomes. The only way to effectively stop its spread is to shade it out and that means letting the trees that will grow here grow. They will only grow if sheep are excluded by fencing.

Trees will soon out compete bracken.

There’s an old saying that you might have come across which dictates that under bracken there is gold. This means that the soil under bracken is good, fertile and deep. I’ve been told that if bracken grows there, oak trees will grow there.

How many fewer sheep would it mean for the farmer if that steep land covered in bracken were removed from her grazing rotations? Surely if bracken is of no interest to sheep it can’t be many and our farm support payments should be able to cover that loss and pay for the fencing. The benefits to nature, and therefore all of us, from simply removing grazing from hillsides covered in bracken are probably hard to calculate, so let’s just say, for now, they’d be invaluable. More native woodland habitat can only be a good thing. Now, take that thought to the Lake District…

This is one of those stories that to me looks like a win-win situation that should not be controversial at all. I suspect others, however, might think differently though, what do you think?

Saplings will come through bracken, gorse and heather. It's natural succession. It will, at some point, need grazing, ideally, by heavier herbivores than sheep. Sheep are such selective grazers they will soon pick out the tasty tree seedlings.

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