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 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. Now, and over the autumn, we are out with our rakes and wheelbarrows again to remove the cuttings.

Restoring biodiversity

Already, after just two cuts, the bracken is weakening. Where a year ago it was a virtual monoculture, the ground beneath is now returning to a rich mixture of grasses and other species: where there was previously just bracken, now we find 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 bracken-raking work parties last winter accidentally disturbed – and hastily put back to bed – a very large, sleepy adder.