Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Cutting Season Starts

If you follow the Wicken Fen Twitter account (@WickenFenNT) you will have noticed a lot of pictures of tractors. We have started the annual cut of the droves over the last couple of weeks. Where the ground is dry enough, this means a team of three tractors heading out onto the droves.

Clearing the end of Gardiner's Drove next to the Wind pump
Firstly a small light tractor heads out with a disk mower, slicing through the vegetation at the bottom of their stems. Unlike a flail mower, or a garden lawn mower, it doesn't mulch the cuttings so we can leave them to dry on ground over night. Then, the next morning the second tractor heads out. this could either be our old Massey Ferguson 35 with an acrobat on the back, or a slightly more modern Kubota  tractor with a PTO driven hay-bob on. These do the same job of turning the cuttings. This knocks a lot of the seeds out, creating a good seed bank for next spring, and also pulls the cuttings into rows ready for the next stage of clearing. The final tractor then comes along and pushes all the cuttings into a large pile called a Duffy pile.
The hay-bob
The Hay-bob in action, rowing up the cuttings
A tractor-eye view

One cleared drove, with the last pile waiting to be taken away
The rows get pushed away by the buck rake
We cut the full width (5-10m) of the droves once a year. This is for two reasons. Firstly to keep access to the fen open, and secondly to maintain the high biodiversity of the drove edges, with some species that only occur in these areas. The orchids that grow around the nature trail most commonly Early Marsh and Common Spotted (and hybrids of these) are mostly found down the droves. There are also a wide range of flowering plants that get out competed in the denser sedge fields. Such plants as Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), Water Mint (Mentha aquatica) and Yellow Rattle (Rhynanthous minor) are a common sight over the spring and summer, which creates and large bank of food plants for a wide variety of insect life.

This week, however, it has started to rain. This has made things a bit trickier. One of the most important considerations we have while doing the tractor work, is whether we are causing too much ground damage while working. Wet ground conditions caused by the recent weather makes damaging the ground more likely, so we have had to stop taking the tractors out to do the work. This is where some of our hard working volunteers come in. We have been using brush-cutters and a ride-on mower to cut some parts of the drove, then raking the cuttings into piles, which are moved by hand into the scrub boundaries. The team have been great at really motivating themselves to get out onto the fen and get the job done, and it is a good job to really see the progress you've made in a day.

The wettest sections are being cleared by hand. 

 All the hard work pays off though. We were reminded how lucky we are to work at such a fabulous site last week when we could pop out if the office to watch a large flock of Bearded Tits feeding in the reeds along the board walk right next to the visitor centre.

Joan Childs managed to snap this lovely photo of them.