Recently, staff and volunteers at the Loch of Strathbeg have been busy with all manner of surveying and practical work around the reserve. A big part of the surveying has been monitoring vegetation as part of the Save Our Magnificent Meadows (SOMM) project.

The aim of the project on the reserve is to restore Mosstown Fen, a large area of fen meadow by the loch, and increase the number and diversity of flowering plants by reducing the dominance of soft rush. This is where our famous Konik ponies come in! They have been grazing certain areas of Mosstown and we have been monitoring their impact. We have also hired contractors to mow using a Softrak; a specialist mower that has minimal impact on delicate habitats such as wetlands. The two management techniques have been combined to create various management regimes across Mosstown, including: mown one, two or all three years and grazed, just grazed, just mown and neither mown nor grazed, with control areas.

The Konik ponies and the Softrak munching or mowing away at the soft rush. Photos by Morwenna Egan

Our recent monitoring has been to compare these management regimes by assessing vegetation composition and the height and density of the soft rush. For the composition, we used 1 m quadrats and identified the percentage cover of different species or types of plant, using the Domin scale. These include soft rush, Sphagnum moss, Polytrichum moss, grasses, forbs (leafy plants), bare ground, water cover and other, which quite often tends to be horse droppings! To assess the height and density of the soft rush, we used a sward stick, which measures both the maximum height and supporting height of the vegetation. Both sampling methods were repeated 40 times and randomly spaced across the different areas of management regime. Our volunteers were recruited to help speed the process up, and brushed up their plant ID at the same time.

Our volunteers Savvas and Pierre getting stuck into the surveying, while the ponies wonder what on earth we’re doing! Photo by Morwenna Egan

This year’s results match up with the previous two years of the project and the combination of grazing and mowing seems to be the most effective way of controlling the soft rush. This is now allowing fen meadow specialists to flourish, such as lesser butterfly orchid and marsh cinquefoil, among many others. The beautiful but declining lesser butterfly orchid is already having huge success on the reserve due to the management, as 377 spikes were counted this year – a whopping eight times the number when the project was started!

Lesser butterfly orchid (left) and marsh cinquefoil (right). Photos by Morwenna Egan.

As we come to the end of the three-year project, we are expanding the areas where the ponies can graze and control the soft rush, and further increase the diversity of these beautiful wetland plants. Good thing too, as having three breeding stallions this season means we may have up to ten new foals next year – we’ll need the room!  

Morwenna Egan

Reserves Intern