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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

Looking after the SSSI ... keeping the soft rush down

Cefn Garthenor, like many of the farms in this part of Ceredigion, has a lot of soft rush. It loves wet, marshy conditions which are plentiful in west Wales. Sheep won’t touch it, and many cattle aren’t keen. It is a brut, and will, left to its own devices dominate, shading out everything else. Over time willow and other wet loving trees will grow through it, and as part of succession that will develop and shade out the rush. Willow scrub will turn to wet woodland, with birch and alder, and that will dry the land to some extent, and possibly move to drier woodland with perhaps hazel and oak. Or not, depending on conditions. On that basis, the whole area would turn to woodland over the next century. Good for carbon capture, but not necessarily biodiversity. And not really “natural”, as large herbivores historical trampled, chomped and digested whatever grew on this land, keeping some areas open and diverse in terms of flora and fauna.

Over the last few hundred years, farmers have tried to drain this land, with a huge network of drains and ditches designed to carry to water off their land as quickly as possible down to the nearest river and flood plain. With drier land, and with the help of cutting back, the rush could be replaced with grass and “improved” fields could be created. But this required significant effort and ongoing maintenance.

Parts of Cefn Garthenor, despite the drainage and ditches, remained marshy, and there was a lot of soft rush. In places it did not totally dominate, and other things grew. Orchids, devil’s bit scabious, ragged robin, caraway, marsh bedstraw and the like. It also created a habitat for voles (water and field) as well as a host of retiles and insects. These areas were designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). As briefly mentioned in my earlier blog (Habitat Map on 6 October 2021) the SSSI, known as Rhosydd Bryn-Maen, extends well beyond Cefn Garthenor and was designated due to its high quality acid, neutral and marshy grassland. It is home to the marsh fritillary butterfly, Lilljeborg’s whorl snail and the oxbow diving beetle (but not necessarily within Cefn Garthenor).

The SSSI places the requirement to follow a management plan on the farmers who have land within it. In the case of this one, that means no sheep and the use of either cattle or mechanical means to keep the soft rush down and willow or scrub out, leaving room for the things of “interest”. There is some debate around the wisdom of this between two groups who really want the same result. Historically conservationists have been seen by some to be species specific (which fits the SSSI model), whereas more recently others have argued that it might be better to just let nature get on with it and allow that process to provide the right niches (more of a rewilding model). The former worry that the latter will wipe out habitats and rare critters or plants that need them in the process, whereas the latter argue that often that habitats we think critters or plants like are where they have been forced to go, not where they want to be.

I have over simplified, and clearly have less expertise than those on either side of the debate. Suffice to say, neither think nature would benefit from intensive agriculture, and that, before rewilding became a thing, conservationists were fighting the good fight for decades. They often found funding and state intervention easier to get for a hero species than a habitat. I only raise the issue as it is “out there”, but it strikes me that much of the work is the same, and the endgame is agreed. The real battle to get greater support for positive change from the government, farmers, landowners and the community who all need to be part of the solution.

But, whatever the rights of wrongs, the SSSI is in place and I have an obligation to follow the management plan, and in this case no one interested in biodiversity would (famous last words) argue that the Galloways won’t do a great job. Plus, they are very good-looking cows!

Hawthorn berries seem to go down well with the Galloways

So, the Galloways, after my learnings from The Great Escape, are now in place on the SSSI land. After a week, I was therefore very excited to see how they are getting on. It has been a wet week in this part of Wales, so the ground is soggy to say the least (and my wellies are leaking). The treeline down one side of their Nofence pasture has provided some shelter (plus hawthorn berries, which they love, to supplement their diet), and the ditches are flowing with clear water, so no issues with hydration.

Woodland on the edge of the SSSI provides shelter and the drainage ditch a flow of fresh water at this time of year

The ladies initially focussed to the top, well drained and grassy part of the area. Easy pickings. But they subsequently moved down into the soft rush. I spent some time watching them in action there, and the video shows Gussi chomping away. She is deep in the rush, which getting a hammering. She clearly prefers the grass that is amongst it, but while dealing with that the ground is being opened up and the rush cut back. I can now walk much more easily through the field as the ten 350kg plus workers have trampled easy to follow trails criss-crossing the patch. I think that they are doing a good job and seem to be enjoying the work!

What remains to be seen is whether I have the right number of cattle. It is too early to say. I went on the low side of best guesses. I would rather avoid having to mechanically cut the rush, but this may be necessary. This depends on the Galloways. I am told that cattle prefer the young, new green shoots but are less keen on the older growth. This being the case, they may not cut it back sufficiently. However, Galloways are known to be hardy beasts who like a wider diet than most, so if any cow is going to deal with the older rush it is them.


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