Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Heathland Bedding

Delegates at the Heathlands for the Future seminar 2014
on heathland near Aberdaron
Cutting and collecting heathland scrub, full of gorse and leggy heather, is a tough job tackled by the Ryetec flail collector. It’s a key tool in bringing overgrown heathland back into good condition; better than burning, which results in a profusion of gorse, and better than just cutting. By cutting so low and exposing the earth it primes the ground to receive incoming seed or to allow seeds within the seedbank to get established. And by removing the cuttings the heathland avoids the build-up of nutrients that would encourage the ‘wrong’ sorts of plants.

But what to do with the cuttings? Despite the prickly nature of the gorse it does in fact make very comfortable bedding for cattle. Kevin Roberts, who works for the National Trust during the day and then runs a farm near Aberdaron, swears by it. For the past three years he has been laying a bed of cuttings in his cattle shed and a depth of 30cm, topped up every month, has proved the right sort of formula. He reckons this saves him 10 to 15 minutes a day compared to using straw and the annual savings in buying straw are worth £2,000. It seems a no-brainer that this practice, which benefits both the economy and nature, should be encouraged more widely. Or is there a hidden snag?

An initial concern was that spreading manure, mixed with the bedding, might lead to the spreading of gorse; but a trial has shown that after six months there was no germination. As the herd of cows looked on, Kevin crumbled a handful of the material from the pile in the field that had been left a couple of years to rot down. Analysis has shown that it has a pH of 8.2 i.e. very alkaline despite being harvested from acidic ground. He is spreading it onto fields that have been ploughed but not onto pasture as there are quite a few stones in the mix.

Heathland bedding is one of many pioneering and practical projects undertaken by 
Partneriaeth Tirlun Llŷn. If you would like to find out more please contact Arwel Jones or Hilary Kehoe.

The rough, tough Ryetec, with its set of 48 flails, does pick up stones and the National Trust archaeology team has clearly marked out the ancient monuments, hidden in the heath, that are to be avoided. The driver also takes care to avoid demolishing ant hills. If you’re watching the Ryetec in action it’s best not to stand too close! 

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