Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chewing things over..

Last week we had a rarity at St Abbs; not only did we manage to get all the people we needed together on the same day for a site visit, but we also got good weather so that we could explore the property (or should I say properties) in comfort! The reason for the gathering was to discuss future grazing management for the Trust's land at St Abb's Head and on the length of coastal slope that the Trust owns to the south east of Fast Castle that we call the Lumsdaine Strip. Both areas of land are within the wider St Abbs's Head to Fast Castle Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a designation which reflects the area's importance for wildlife, not least the grasslands.

Now, contrary to what many people believe, grasslands to not just manage themselves. Depending on what you want to manage them for, you may wish to exclude grazing, or graze them just at certain times of year, or use different types of grazers (because different animals eat different things and in different ways). So the object of this meeting was to discuss ways in which we might tweak the grazing management of these two parcels of land, as surveys have shown that we are mostly getting it right, but there are some areas where we might want to try a different tack.

The grazing management of both areas is tricky. In the picture at the top left you can see, behind the group of lunch munchers, the sort of slopes that we are talking about at Lumsdaine - not terribly horizontal, and also the land that we own is an island surrounded by land owned by others, over which we have no right of access. Then at the Head the underlying geology has produced a mosiac of small hillocks with thin soils (known locally as knowes) which where you find the flora of interest, surrounded by areas of thicker, more nutrient rich soils which promotes the growth of tall grasses which smothers any of the small herbs species. The photo on the right shows this quite nicely, the knowes have a flush of pink from the thrift and the areas with thicker soils show up bright green. But there is no way we can fence out each one of the knowes to exclude grazing on them but allow grazing in between, so we have to decide what is the best way of managing the flora rich areas.

Then there are additional issues such as plant species that are invading the grasslands, like bracken, gorse, thistles and nettles, and the best way to control them. Not to mention rabbits which impose a not inconsiderable grazing pressure (just four innocent looking bunnies can eat as much in a year as a sheep), and they breed like...well, rabbits, and their burrows cause a lot of damage. But in some areas the bare soil caused by their burrowing is a good thing for butterflies.

So all in all, quite a complicated business. But luckily we have considerable experience and expertise within the Trust that we can call on, and combining this with advice and support from Scottish Natural Heritage, and a good relationship with our tenant graziers we seem to be doing OK. Hopefully this meeting will help us put together a grazing management plan, including the way in which we will monitor whether we are getting it right or not, and this will not only guide our future management, but also help us apply for funding to help support this work.

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