The dry autumn has created ideal ground conditions to get onto the heaths around North Pembrokeshire and cut firebreaks and patches of overgrown heath. This year we’re making use of the arisings – as bedding for the cattle at Southwood Farm.
Without this work there’s an increased risk of wildfire sweeping across a wide area. The firebreaks slow down the spread of fire, improving the odds of bringing it under control. By breaking up continuous thickets of heather and gorse into smaller blocks with curving, long edges, we’re also creating the right conditions for some of the special heathland plants that depend on these open, edge micro-habitats, such as heath dog violet and lesser butterfly orchids.
Estate Ranger Rob is at the wheel of the tractor, working through a long list of sites this winter. He’s putting our new Ryetec C1800CH flail collector – a massive lawnmower – through its paces on these wet, rough areas. This machine cuts a 1.8m wide swath of heath using a spinning drum of claw shaped blades that whisk the cut material into its hopper. We can cut and collect a 50-100m strip before needing to empty the hopper, depending on how tall, dense or wet (ie heavy) the material is.
This machine, and a tractor tipping trailor to cart the arisings back to Southwood Farm, has been funded by the Welsh Government’s Resilient Ecosystem Fund to help provide effective and long term management to our heaths in north Pembrokeshire.
This is the sort of effect that this work is acheiving:
It took a couple of days to finish the work on Waun Vachelich, part of the chain of commons that run alongside the old St David’s Airfield. The material can be used as livestock bedding even when wet, so the stockpile was left on site for a few weeks whilst Rob carried on making the most of the dry ground conditions on the remaining heaths.
Once we’d moved it back to Southwood Farm it was simply a case of unloading and spreading the material using the tractor into the shed, ready for our new arrivals – a batch of 6 month old welsh Black steers bought in from a long standing supplier in north Wales.
The cattle quickly smoothed out the mass of chopped up gorse, heather and purple moor grass, and after a few weeks the depth had compressed to around 30cm. Apart from making use of a free waste product, the beauty of this stuff is that it drains well, leaving a dry surface. The cattle stay clean, dry and healthy through the winter, conserving energy. There’s an old farmer’s saying – ‘a dry bed is as good as a feed’.
There’s nothing new about this – its still within living memory that the heaths provided bedding for livestock in north Pembrokeshire – but the technology has changed. We’re really pleased with the results for the cattle, and we’re not alone. The NT Ranger team on the Llyn have been providing heather bedding for local farms for the past two years and have helped with some great research into the many benefits of this system. The RSPB on Anglesey have also been pioneering this work.
We’ll top up the bedding in spring, and then clean it all out and let it rot for a year or two before applying it the pasture at Southwood as farm yard manure. Job done!