Friday, 24 October 2014

Godwin Plots

We have been embarking on the massive rake-a-thon that occurs this time every year. When the fen is too wet to drive the tractors on to cut and clear the sedge, its back to good old fashioned elbow grease  and large portion of the ranger team took their rakes and went across the fen to the Godwin plots last week. 

The Godwin Plots are a reminder of the scientific importance and history of the fen. Sir Harry Godwin set up the plots as part of an experiment in 1927. He was investigating the impact of cutting vegetation on plant communities. He split the experimental sites into 5 plots, each with a different cutting regime; the first was cut yearly, the next every two years, the next every three, and then four and the final one was never cut. His results showed that management alone could have a great impact on the flora, with the plots cut more regularly showing a decline in the sedge species Cladium maricus and an increase in Purple Moor Grass (Molina caerulea) and tall fen herbs such as marsh thistle (Cirisium vulgare) and yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris). The plant communities could be changed from mixed sedge characteristics to herd rich litter communities just by changing the frequency of cutting. These were ground breaking findings at the time, and helped support the new theory of ecological succession of which Godwin was a supporter. Godwin finished his experiments in 1940, the but plots were revived in 1955 for Cambridge University students to study, by which time scrub species like alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus) and brambles (Rubus fruticosus) were also appearing in the plots that were cut less often. To this day we continue to cut the plots at the same timings as first proposed by Godwin. We only had to cut the annual plot this year so, Ruby went up with a tractor earlier in the month, when the weather was a little drier, to do the cutting and then some of the other rangers went up to rake off the cuttings by hand last week.

Beautifully raked Godwins

It's not just the Godwin plots keeping us busy. We've also been raking up the cuttings along Wicken Lode, Drainer's Ditch and part of Sedge Fen Drove, as well as decorating the newly refurbished Docky Hut and supervising our contractors, JW Fencing, who are currently putting up some fantastic new fences for us. 

More raking!
Lois and I were happy to have a work party from BT back to help us spruce up the wild campsite. They’ve done a fantastic job fixing the toilet door, and have built some lovely new steps to make getting to the toilet slightly easier. So thank you guys and we look forward to having you again!

The BT chaps with their fantastic new steps and toilet door.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Let the Cutting Commence!

Two weeks ago the rumble of tractors returned to the Sedge Fen as we started the cutting for this year. This is very exciting as this is the main management technique of the old fen, continuing a tradition that has been going since the 15th Century. We now have a very different method, using mostly tractors to cut, turn and clear the litter.

The fen is split into different areas, called either droves or compartments. The droves are the paths around the site and get cut annually, which is where we have started the cutting this year. The compartments are all the bits in between the droves. These are further divided into strips which we have colour coded. If your walking around the fen and see fence posts with red, green or yellow tops, they are marking the different strips. These strips are cut on a three year rotation, which allows the sedge to grow and develop, whilst stopping any small trees growing developing into scrub. In the past it was also found that a three year rotation was better for the sedge being used for thatching, any longer and the sedge was too brittle when dried, any shorter and there were negative ecological effects.

The little tractor with the disk mower attached
We clear the fen using a three tractor rotation. Firstly we send our little tractor with the disk mower which cuts the litter at the base and leaves it all lying flat. We then leave it on the ground for a couple of days to allow for seed dispersal. This also gives time for it to dry a little making the next step easier. Next we send out our oldest tractor, with the acrobat on the back. The acrobat is made up of four wheels that have lots of thin tines sticking out. As you pull them quickly across the ground they move the litter into rows. Finally we send out another tractor with a buck rake on the back to scoop up these rows and put them into piles located within the scrub line. These piles are great for insects and we need to get the cut litter off the ground to allow new seeds germinate and grow.

Drainer's as I arrived this morning
Drainers after I was finished cutting
At the moment we are focusing on the annual cut of the droves. These are cut more often than the compartments because we are trying to maintain a different flowering plant community. This is where we get the beautiful orchids earlier in the summer, and these flowering communities are one of the reasons we are designated a Special Area of Conservation.

In other news, Lois, Ruby and I have been at Ickworth for the past two days doing a Tree Health Surveying course. I am pleased to say we all passed, so can now help John do the surveys around the fen.

On Monday Lois and I went to Swaffham Prior School to install a very beautiful, but very heavy oak sign board in their outdoor area. To read more about it and see the finished article pop over to the Wicken and Anglesey Community Blog: