Competition for land in the rural sector is fierce. Really fierce. Is there actually space for all the farming, forestry, field sports, rewilding and recreation we want to do?
So often you hear that timber production is eating into good agricultural ground, rewilding is a waste of land that could grow high-quality saw logs and that soon “our” countryside will be used for nothing except to fulfil the recreational whims of urban visitors.
The reality is that a lot of this is hyperbole. Individual sectors banging their well-worn drums with the same old concerns and industry straplines, trying to maximise their success and influence over land management and policy. But there is a genuine issue at the core of all this posturing. We’re trying to achieve an awful lot from an area of land that isn’t getting any bigger. We need to produce food and fibre, combat a climate crisis, rural depopulation and the continued depletion of our natural world. Whatever way you look at it, both on land and at sea, detailed, sensitive spatial planning is going to be needed. It’s likely to be hugely contentious, hotly contested and I suspect no-one will be happy with the outcome (the sign of a ‘good’ compromise?).
Enter bracken…the pesky fern that’s been quietly eating up more and more of our precious land, and the potential opportunity it offers to ease the squeeze.
Image credit: John Haynes
Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is a native species in Britain, a plant whose niche is less a physical habitat than a successional stage. Bracken’s place is the space in between heathland (or acid grassland) and woodland, meaning it is often referred to as a “plant of the woodland edge”. In ye olden days, bracken would have established around the edges of meadows and open heath, sheltering tree saplings from grazing mouths. Cattle-like herbivores would have trampled the bracken and disturbed the ground, allowing frost to get down to its fragile roots, while boar would have dug up its energy storing rhizomes to eat, weakening the plants’ reserves. Robbed of any resilience, bracken would have quickly succumbed once the trees it sheltered were tall enough to shade it out, its role in the successional story at an end.
The problem is, in modern Britain, we rarely have the natural landscapes or processes that allow effective succession to play out unencumbered. A warming climate and the way we farm livestock (particularly sheep) in this country have exacerbated the problem. This is because sheep preferentially browse tree saplings but, unlike cattle or pigs, do not trample or uproot bracken. As a result, bracken has come to dominate ever larger tracts of ground and, once it takes hold of an area, it creates a wasteland – a species-poor, tick-harbouring habitat that is little use to man or beast, which undermines sheep grazing and requires the repeated use of herbicides just to hold the line.
So, what’s the opportunity here? Well, one helpful aspect of bracken cover is that it likes mineral soils. As a result, its distribution effectively creates visual maps of where woodland and trees used to exist in our landscapes, and where they could exist again. If every bit of bracken-dominated hillside across Scotland was reforested, we’d create an incredible network of woodland and scrub habitats, covering more than 130,000 hectares, and with almost no loss of currently grazed land. In these constrained times, that would be a massive win.
Image showing the spread of bracken across sheep-grazed hillsides in the Scottish Highlands. Photo credit – Matthew Hay
The challenge is that where bracken has come to dominate, completing the successional journey to woodland can be extremely difficult. It requires the exclusion of wild herbivores like deer, control of the bracken itself and / or a different approach to livestock farming. Unpalatable as it may be, the targeted use of herbicides like asulam will probably also be key in enabling any transition from bracken wastes to woodland, as long as its spraying is backed up either by tree planting or by the sustained actions of people, cows and pigs.
Politicians and land managers alike will need to embrace these complicated, integrated solutions because, with every hectare of land as valuable as it is, we cannot afford to be ceding so much to one fickle fern.