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Bracken management in rough grassland

Bracken control is an essential management regime for various types of habitat, particularly rough grassland. The aim is to reduce the vigour of bracken, which if left unchecked would smother other flora beneath it.  Without management, grass growth would be suppressed resulting in a decline in grassland species, including small mammals such as Field Voles.

The technique is quite simple. With an old broom handle the base of the bracken stem is sufficiently bruised to fold the plant over. The rhizome continues to exude sap, thereby weakening the plant. Bracken growth the following year is consequently much less vigorous, allowing competition from other flora.

If we didn’t bash the bracken with broomsticks we would have to adopt another method of control. Alternative methods include:

  • Cutting – a non-selective method resulting in the destruction of all growth. Areas may need two cuts per year for several years to have some effect. Wildlife is negatively affected.
  • Topping – non-selective. Although the stems and the limited undergrowth are unaffected other than by the equipment carrying the topper, the bracken fronds are cut so any wildlife here may be negatively impacted.
    crushing – a non-selective method using a heavy roller. Wildlife is negatively affected.
  • Herbicide treatments – Natural England recommends two treatments for bracken; asulam and glyphosate. Glyphosate is systemic and will kill other flora. It is also now considered carcinogenic. Asulam is a broad spectrum systemic selective herbicide that kills bracken (and other ferns). However, there are concerns in some quarters that this too may be carcinogenic.
  • Ploughing – areas of bracken can be reduced by ploughing between late June and early August, as the ploughing exposes the rhizome. However, ploughing releases carbon and results in the loss of soil organic matter as well as having a negative impact on wildlife. It’s likely that follow-up management using another method will be required anyway.

In conclusion, we prefer to bash some of the bracken on-site manually because we consider it to be the least impactful on wildlife of the management control methods available. Just as importantly we don’t control all the bracken everywhere as we know that, as a habitat, bracken can be really good for a small number of species. Tolerating an appropriate amount of bracken cover can help to maximise the diversity of a site. If considering bracken control on your own site, it is advisable to determine the range of species present and evaluate their needs before deciding on the best course of action.

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Bracken bashing event photo