Bracken control at Jasper’s Pightle

Over a period of disuse before it was given to the Trust, Jasper’s Pightle had been increasingly invaded by large swathes of encroaching bracken.

What’s wrong with bracken?

What, you might ask, is so bad about bracken? Stands of bracken can be an attractive feature of the landscape, with their vibrant green fronds in summer turning to rich brown in autumn, and bracken also supports its own distinct set of species. We would not wish to eradicate it completely from our land; it has a place as part of a mosaic of habitats. But in the light, sandy soil of the Suffolk sandlings bracken does tend, if left to its own devices, to take over completely, killing other plant life where it takes hold.

When bracken takes over

Bracken is commonplace in this part of our county, but sadly the same cannot be said of the habitats it is invading. The acid grassland of Jasper’s Pightle, which forms part of the dry lowland heath of Blaxhall Great Common, is a scarce and dwindling habitat both nationally and globally, and therefore in need of protection.

You might imagine that ‘re-wilding’ is just a matter of sitting back and letting nature do its thing – but this is not necessarily the case! Heathlands only stayed that way in the past because of how people used them, historically – mainly grazing their animals there, but also gathering gorse for fuel and bracken for animal bedding. This kept the gorse renewed, and the bracken at bay through cutting by people and trampling by livestock.

Instead, we now have to control the bracken on Jasper’s Pightle by more targeted means. A first mechanical cut was carried out in the autumn of 2020, and over the winter of 2020-21 regular work parties of trustees and supporters raked up and cleared the bracken to expose the soil to sunlight and allow other plants to grow.

Winter bracken raking

During the spring of 2021 the land was left alone to allow for bird-nesting, but in early July, after we had walked the land to check for any remaining ground-nesting birds, the bracken was cut again, followed by a second cut at the end of the summer. Then, over the autumn and winter, we were out with our rakes and wheelbarrows again to remove the cuttings. The same process was repeated in 2022-23, and will be again in 2023-24.

Restoring biodiversity

Already by 2021, after just two cuts, the bracken was weakening. Where a year before it had been a virtual monoculture, the ground beneath was now returning to a rich mixture of grasses and other species: where there was previously just bracken, we were finding Speedwell, Lesser Stitchwort, Celandine, Forget-me-not, Herb Robert, Dead Nettle, Yellow Vetch… and all alive and hopping with bees, butterflies and other insects.

Lesser stitchwort

Once cleared of its excess bracken, Jasper’s Pightle represents a valuable area of dry acid grassland, rich in wild flowers and studded with gorse and brambles which provide excellent cover and nesting-sites for birds and mammals. Its ground sward is made up of a number of acid grassland species, like Common Bent and Sheep’s Fescue, and a rich variety of herbs including Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Common Storksbill and Mouse-eared Hawkweed.

We conducted a wildlife survey on the land in 2020, and we will continue to monitor the flora and fauna. In spring 2020 Jasper’s Pightle was home to six species of nesting birds. During the summer of 2020 we identified ten species of butterfly using the area, including Grayling and the nationally scarce Silver-studded Blue. Woodlark breed nearby and may be encouraged to nest on the land once the bracken is controlled. Nightjars have been observed on site. And one of our bracken-raking work parties last winter accidentally disturbed – and hastily put back to bed – a very large, sleepy adder!

2023 update

Now, in the spring of 2023 and following three seasons of cutting and raking, the areas of Jasper’s Pightle which in 2020 were entirely smothered in a blanket of bracken have re-established themselves as a lush and varied sward of grasses and wild herbs.

… and in May 2023
The recovering sward in April 2023…

The regenerated grassland is host to a wide range of wildlife, from invertebrates up to tawny owl and roe deer. One of our key target species – a wood lark – has recently been heard singing above the Pightle.

Earthworms are vital to soil health
Who lives here?

It is interesting to compare these regenerated areas with a smaller section of the Pightle where we were unable to cut the bracken until 2022, after work parties had removed an old, half-buried wire fence. After only one year of bracken control, this smaller section still showed, in April 2023, large patches of bare earth, with young green plants just beginning to re-emerge and take hold. By May 2023, the bracken was regrowing strongly in this area.

May 2023 – resurgent bracken
April 2023 – first new shoots

This part of the land, in fact, looks very much the way the main areas reclaimed from bracken appeared two years ago – a good illustration of the progression of our habitat restoration work.

The same contrast is visible in May 2023, with much stronger bracken regrowth where there has been only one year of cutting
View in April 2023 showing the difference in effect between three years’ bracken control and just one year’s cutting

Side benefit

The raked-up bracken, stacked on the bases of the old pig sties, quickly transforms itself into an excellent ericaceous compost, which has come in useful as a mulch for newly planted hedging.