Managing down the rushes

Well, we’ve done it. And with a heavy heart because it involved using herbicides. The Devon Wildlife Trust came yesterday and weed wiped Lower Newland Moor to control the rushes that have been taking over so much in recent years.
Why do we do it? Especially given you have to use nasty chemicals? Because soft rush dominates, growing into stronger and stronger clumps that push out all the other flowering plants and also mean there’s no room for grass. No grass means no food for cows, which means you can’t manage the field with grazing. Sooner rather than later there’s only rush in the field – that’s until the willow and brambles take over and turn it back to scrub. Rush growth has been particularly strong over recent wet winters.

This has been a big build up, and has involved planning with our Natural England advisors. Last year we cut and cleared the rushes, as we’ve done several times over the past decade. You have to cut them first because you need fresh regrowth if the herbicide is to work efficiently.

Cutting them wasn’t too bad as Andrew and Tim from Fiona’s farm shop came and did it with machinery. Clearing is always another matter – needing back breaking work pitch forking the rushes into piles and burning them. Then we let the cows graze the field late. Thankfully it was a dry autumn.
And we’ve had cows back early this spring (requiring a derogation from Natural England for our Higher Level Stewardship agreement) to eat the grass and flowers down around the rebounding rushes. That means when you treat the rushes the rest doesn’t get treated – and survives. It’s not a spray that’s put on everywhere, but a wipe – like a big paint roller wet with herbicide that is literally wiped onto the rushes. Steve, the guy from the Devon Wildlife Trust who did the work, says it’s amazing what pops back up when the rushes die. Let’s hope so.

But the battle isn’t over. There’s so many more rushes on Popehouse Moor, our Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that need tackling. Last year I cut a good proportion of them by hand with a scythe (it’s too wet to take machinery down there), but it’s an endless fight that you can’t win even with hard labour. We’ll be out there again later this summer to do more cutting, once the breeding bird season is over.