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Land management on the Isles of Scilly

Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust

In the second article of the mini-series, Nikki Banfield (Communications Officer, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust) focuses on land management…

“Land management” is the primary purpose of the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust; yet these two words are often misunderstood and strike fear and confusion into the hearts of many. Add to the mix habitat restoration, conservation, invasive species, non-native species and ecological diversity and you’ve really got a recipe for brain-ache.

With responsibility for just under 2,000 hectares, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust’s small team of Rangers (Toby, Rob, Rhianna & Phil), led by Head Ranger (Darren M), have a huge task when it comes to getting the job done; if you break it down it’s approximately 400 hectares, or 266.5 football pitches, each!

Throw into the work programme small roads, tracks and paths, granite boulders, uneven terrain, small machinery, archaeology, boat journeys, wind, tides, 24 Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) and uninhabited islands, where “beach” landings are the only means of access, and things get a whole lot more “interesting”.

As a team, the Rangers’ work programme is relentless. But they always have a smile on their faces and genuinely love their jobs — rain, wind or shine. Now, they are also starting to see their hard work come to fruition.

Those in the know will be well aware that land management and habitat restoration are very long processes; there’s no quick fix or magic wand waving here! It has been a long time coming, but some amazing results are now being seen at various sites across the Islands.

We’re going to introduce you to a couple of areas in Scilly, which the Rangers have been working on over the past five to ten years, where real results are evident and starting to become visible — even to those not in “the business” of land management.

Higher & Lower Moors, St Mary’s (inhabited island, approximately 30 hectares)
There are two main wetland areas on St Mary’s: one at Lower Moors and the surrounding area, and one at Higher Moors and the surrounding area. The Moors have areas of fresh and brackish water, as they both have exit points into the sea, where on spring high tides the seawater will make its way up the leats and ditches and into the Moors.

Wetlands offer incredibly rich and diverse habitats for our invertebrates, plants, birds and mammals. Due to their size and location, our wetlands in Scilly may not be home to well known species, such as harvest mice, otters or Bittern, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

Dwarf pansy (Credit: ©Bob Dawson & Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust)

They provide food, shelter and breeding grounds for some of our resident wildlife all year round, as well as providing a resource for migrating wildlife at various points throughout the year; this is especially evident in September to October, when visiting birdwatchers can be found negotiating the mud, trees, bridges, walkways and hides on the hunt for, often elusive, feathered beings amongst the reeds.

In addition to this the Moors are also vital in terms of providing drinking water across the Islands and flood defences to some key areas of habitation and industry. The Moors are also home to some of our largest reed beds.

Across the Islands, reeds have traditionally been used for thatching and livestock bedding as well as in agriculture as a fuel for burning, grazing cattle or creating screens to shelter plants. In recent times these practices have become less common or died out all together and as a result the management, which happened as a bi-product of human’s finding a use for nature, ceased.

Between the 1970’s and the late 1990’s, very little was done in terms of management of the wetlands and reed beds on St Mary’s and as a result they began to dry out — becoming overrun by willow and bramble. The quality of the reed beds changed, and in many respects decreased, impacting not only on the health of the reeds and many of the other plants and animals that also live in these areas, but also the areas’ effectiveness as a natural flood defence and water supply.

Lower Moors reed comparison: managed vs unmanaged (Credit: ©Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust)

In 1999, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust cut, raked and burnt areas of reed and rush, which hadn’t been touched for nearly 30 years. The areas were overrun with bramble and willow and it was hard going. Since that time, small areas were managed on an ad-hoc basis, but in 2014/2015 an intensive programme of work was started by our Rangers to manage larger areas on a planned four year rotational cycle.

The reasoning behind rotational management is two-fold: firstly, to lessen the visual impact and secondly, to create even more diversity and habitat types.

Without this type of management, succession takes place, whereby reed beds gradually become more overgrown with scrub (i.e. bramble and bracken) and drier; as a result different plants grow (e.g. nettles and grasses) and if left, reed beds will eventually develop into woodland habitats.

In the short time that the Moors were “unmanaged”, willow had become well established — creating, in some places, pockets of quite dense woodland. By cutting the reed during the winter months, growth is encouraged and reed dominance is supported; this occurs as the soil is wetter and the reed has fewer plant species to compete with. By cutting the reed in sections on a rotational basis, a degree of plant diversity is encouraged without allowing succession to take place.

Reed Bed management at Lower Moors SSSI (Credit: ©BareFoot Photographer & Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust)

We’re now four years into the more structured programme of rotational reed bed management and willow coppicing. The results of some of the most recent survey and monitoring work across Lower Moors SSSI, make for good reading.

In 2009 there were nine ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) recorded across the site. Reed-cutting commenced in 2014 and in 2015, 350 flowering heads of ragged robin were recorded (c. 3,800% increase); during the winter of 2017/2018, 475 basal rosettes were recorded (an overall increase of around 5,200% since 2009).

Marsh thistle (Cirsium palustre) was previously unrecorded on this site (Parslow 2009). Following the commencement of the Ranger team’s work programme, three flowering heads of marsh thistle were recorded in 2015 and in the winter of 2017/2018 17 basal rosettes were recorded (an increase of around 466% from 2015).

In 2015m 12-15 tubular water-dropwort (Oenanthe fistulosa) were recorded on the site and in 2017 over 60 plants were recorded — an increase of 400%.

Royal fern (Osmunda regalis) is quoted in the SSSI citation as occasional. Following survey work in 2017, this species is now classed as locally abundant and brookweed (Samolus valerandi) has been recorded on this site for the first time.

Ecological survey and monitoring work has recently been carried out at Higher Moors for which we are awaiting the report, but initial findings are also positive and indicate that the work of our Ranger Team is improving habitat and increasing diversity. We are really looking forward to seeing the data produced from Higher Moors SSSI, given the positive outcomes and increases in ecological diversity we’ve recorded at Lower Moors SSSI.

Higher Moors SSSI: willow coppicing (Credit: ©BareFoot Photographer & Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust)

Tean (uninhabited island, approximately 16 hectares)
Approximately 110 hectares on the uninhabited islands are considered physically “manageable” — the struggle isn’t so much the management but physically getting there to do it. Tean may be one of Scilly’s larger uninhabited islands, but she is home to some of Scilly’s smallest, special non-human inhabitants. You will find Tean nestled between Tresco and St Martin’s, partially protected from the Northern Atlantic winds and huge rolling swells by St Helen’s and Round Island; flanked by the strange sounding islets of Old Man, Pednbrose and Crump Island.

Much like all of our islands, Tean’s history is a varied one. During the early 1700’s Tean was an inhabited island; records show that ten hardy souls lived there and cultivated the land. However, by the mid 1700’s the inhabitants had moved on, leaving behind only ruins and fields of corn. Following this desertion by the residents, the Island continued to be used for the grazing of sheep, cows and goats intermittently up until the early 1960’s; with the livestock being shipped on and off the Island by their owners, as they did with many of the uninhabited islands.

As a result of this grazing, short turfy areas were created across the Island allowing tiny plants, such as orange bird’s foot (Ornithopus pinnatus), western clover (Trifolium occidentale) and dwarf pansy (Viola kitaibeliana), to name just a few, to thrive. It was, in part, because of these species that the island of Tean was designated a SSSI in 1971.

Orange birds-foot (Credit: ©BareFoot Photographer & Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust)

Since the cessation of grazing and the subsequent disappearance of rabbits from the Island in the 1990’s, the short turf areas have gradually been encroached by tougher, larger plants such as bracken and bramble, leaving less space for the tiny flowering plants; although they are still present on Tean, both orange bird’s foot and dwarf pansy had sadly declined in numbers.

It is the Trust’s job to try and restore the Island to its former glory and recreate the conditions required to get more of the plants to flower and to thrive once again.

However, things have changed a lot over the last 60 years and it simply isn’t feasible to have grazing animals on the uninhabited islands any longer; but it is possible to substitute the action of grazing with mechanical cutting, and this is what the Rangers do.

Armed with brushcutters, fuel, rakes and anything else they may need, they take a 30 minute boat journey from St Mary’s to Tean, followed by a short smaller dingy transfer onto the beach where they land (weather permitting). This is invariably done during the winter months, as it’s the best time of year in terms of getting the work done ecologically, but also to prevent disturbance to our breeding seabirds — the skipper of the boat waits offshore for the day, just in case the weather conditions deteriorate and the Rangers need to leave quickly.

Credit: ©Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust

Once on the Island the Rangers cut areas of vegetation very short, using brushcutters; the cuttings are then raked off to allow the delicate wild flowers to push up through the short turf and flower once again in the spring.

There are invariably complications, e.g. machinery getting broken by sneaky hiding rocks or becoming entangled in debris which has been discarded by the sea during the winter storms, but despite this the Rangers persevere and the benefits of this work are now starting to shine through.

The Ranger Team have noted increases in a number of the plant species and grasses where the maritime grassland is now returning; more in depth survey and monitoring work has been taking place and we are again awaiting the results to confirm the positive outcomes we know we are seeing.

If you like what you’re reading then why not follow us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram to get regular, daily instalments regarding our ongoing conservation in our remote south-west corner of the UK? With updates regarding the Ranger Team’s work programme, our events and education programme and the work of our Seabird Ecologist. We may be a small team but we get a heck of a lot done!

Header Image: Marsh thistle. Credit: Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust.

Article written by: Nikki Banfield (Communications Officer, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust).

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