A collaboration of coast and countryside organisations on The Lizard Peninsula

Scattered throughout Goonhilly's rolling heathland are a series of crofts – enclosed parcels of land broken in from the surrounding landscape in times past and agriculturally improved over the years. As recently as the 1970's these crofts were producing hay and growing corn and other crops. Their protracted fallow period since then has seen a sward of semi-improved grassland develop which, though not home to notable rarities, does contain a pleasing variety of flowering plants and grasses, as well as associated birds and invertebrates. However one of the plants to be found within these damp pastures has, in recent years, come to dominate the sward to the exclusion of many other species.

Soft rush tussockThe Soft Rush (Juncus effusus) is a familiar site to those who regularly walk amid wet pastures, heaths and boggy areas. Scattered tussocks within a grassland habitat can provide useful nesting sites for a variety of species and the occasional meal for some. However, this winter green, clump forming plant has the undesirable capacity to spread if unchecked and will smother other low-growing plants and reduce species-richness, which can have knock-on effects on a variety of species populations. Together with the site's graziers, the Oates family of Rosuick, the NNR team decided that this was the year to check the onward march of rush across these pastures – the only question was, how? There are a variety of prescriptions available for the control of rush within a grassland sward: these include ploughing, flooding, the application of high levels of inorganic fertiliser and the spraying of herbicides. All these methods have a place in which they may be applied, that place just wasn't going to be the centre of a notable National Nature Reserve.

In the end it was decided to use those tools most readily at our disposal – teeth and blades. Soft rush is a tough customer and can put up a degree of resistance to either treatment, but it was felt that a combination of both would have a degree of impact. Livestock will lose condition in a sward dominated by mature clumps of rush, but will pick at young shoots and flower heads after a fashion. So it was evident that the priority was a mowing regime that could be applied several times in a season to put the plant under stress without unduly disturbing wildlife. The Lizard NNR has a pair of mowers, with the option of either chains or blades, and we settled on blades as a means of demolishing the tussocks without putting a huge strain on the machinery. It was felt that a first cut around midsummer would have less impact on wildlife – ground nesting birds and the like – and we were fortunate that the dry summer has enabled us to do this and carry out a subsequent mowing of the crofts. The Oates' contributed to this work by cutting and baling the rushes in the two most accessible crofts and making use of them as bedding, a timeless reminder of the use to which harvested rushes were once put.

 

The grazing of the crofts by Welsh Black cattle in between the cuts by the mower has further reduced the dominance that the rush once had. We feel that this synergy of cutting and grazing remains our most effective means of rush management for these sites but realise that we are committed to a long-term process because rushes are both difficult to kill and have a persistent seed bank. It may be that over time we would need to consider the application of herbicide by a weed wiping process as a valuable addition to our armoury. However, when you can walk in these old crofts once so heavily dominated by rush and smell the aromatic scent of Chamomile underfoot, you can feel that you are heading down the right track.

Published: Sept 2014
Author: Duncan Lyne – Lizard NNR Reserve Warden.