Our heathland supports a wide array of biodiversity including a host of scarce fungi, lichen, invertebrates and birds all dependent on this now rare habitat. Without constant effort by us the heathland would gradually return to woodland, which is easy to imagine when you count the birch saplings that grow on the heath each spring. To maintain this precious heathland wildlife we need to manage and control them.
Every year the arrival of September launches the start of our ‘winter work program’ and in turn the start of our annual birch control. Last winter we used two methods to reduce the number of birch saplings, ‘cut and treat’ and ‘popping.’ The cut and treat method by a contractor used a mechanical clearing saw to cut the birch, leaving stumps that are then treated with herbicide to prevent re-growing. The stumps gradually rot over a couple of years.
The second method, popping, uses an innovative new tool appropriately named the ‘tree popper,’ which clamps onto the bottom of each birch sapling so we can lever, or ‘pop’, the sapling out. This removes the root ball too and so kills them without any need for herbicide
Our approach to tackling the birch sees us targetting a section / compartment at a time, often combining the two techniques. The cut and treat method is used on the taller (too large to pop) or dense blocks of birch, often opening up areas and allowing the sunlight to reach the sandy soil, enabling the heather and other wildlife to flourish. Poppers then follow-up, removing smaller and sparser areas of birch. A few saplings are always left to provide song perches for breeding birds e.g. woodlark & stonechat.
Once the Covid restrictions (which have stopped all reserve work) are lifted, we can plan work for the next winter. Soon we expect to reach the point where the birch is at a low, sustainable level, and that we will be able to manage it with poppers alone. The tree poppers have been a fantastic addition to our armoury, and one that our volunteer work party teams have become well accustomed to using.
Our volunteers constantly amaze me and without whom we would simply not be able to carry out the scale of work that we do. Their enthusiasm and desire to help make this reserve the best it can be is just inspiring. In total, approximately 14ha of heathland was cleared of encroaching birch saplings thanks to them and our contractor who has worked tirelessly over winter 2019/20. We stopped in February - a job well done!
In the past couple of years, the heathland restoration work has attracted breeding nightjars (2018) and stonechats (2019) to the site and this winter’s work will only help build on that as the habitat becomes more and more favourable to these rare and threatened creatures.
Popping: image (c) RSPB Alan Kell
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