Farmer’s landscape conservation

Visit Scotland, our national tourism organisation, is pulling out all the stops this year to encourage us to get outside, enjoy the great outdoors and experience what wonderful wildlife and landscapes Scotland has to offer.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 5th April 2013, 7:58 am

The Borders landscape may not be as dramatic as the Highlands, but there are many wonderful places just waiting to be explored.

One real gem is the National Trust for Scotland’s Nature Reserve at St Abbs Head.

St Abbs is well known as a sea bird colony with cliffs packed full of nesting guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes in spring. The cliffs too are worth visiting for their spectacular shapes and dramatic geology. The rocks are a mixture of ancient oceanic sediments and volcanic lavas which formed over 350 million years ago.

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It is these rocks that give rise to St Abbs Head’s other fascination, it’s wildflower grasslands, which on a warm day in May or June simply can’t be surpassed for their beauty. If the weather is calm, then butterflies and bumblebees will be on the wing just adding to the drama.

Last year SAC Consulting worked with the senior ranger Liza Cole, to put together a long term grazing plan for St Abbs Head. Sheep are very important tools for wildflower grassland management.

Liza explained: “The St Abbs Head grasslands are a mosaic, with thin soil over the knowes (rocky lumps) and deeper soils with taller grassland between.

“Some of the knowes are lime-rich; others are much poorer or acidic. All of them eventually would be overwhelmed by rank vegetation if they were not grazed, but each needs a different intensity of grazing to keep them that way. Rabbits are important grazers, but their populations fluctuate wildly because of myxomatosis.

“Sheep are also used to graze the reserve. Their numbers can be adjusted to manage grazing levels, but this is tricky because of the variable climate, with faster growth in wet summers than in hot, dry ones.”

The National Trust for Scotland works closely with local farmer Ali Gordon from Northfield, whose sheep are used to graze the grasslands.

The sheep are on the head during spring and winter to help keep the more dominant grasses down and largely kept off during the summer to let the flowers set seed.

This close working relationship between the NTS and a local farmer works really well with both benefitting from the arrangement.

Liza added: “Sheep are fenced off from some parts of the reserve, like part of the south facing slope of Kirk Hill, to provide suitable conditions for the important population of Northern brown argus butterflies.

“The fenced-off areas ensure plenty of rockrose for egg laying and caterpillar food. Outside, where both sheep and rabbits graze on thin soils, conditions are ideal for wild thyme which the adults need for food. In deeper soil at the bottom of the slope, longer vegetation provides an essential roosting place for the adults.”

Natural conservation grazing schemes like this are taking place right across the country. Grazing plays such an important role in wildlife tourism benefits here.

The Borders farmed landscape is something to take pride in. We should do what we can to continue to look after it and manage it sustainably for future generations to enjoy.

Information on wildflower grassland management can be obtained form contacting SAC Consulting on 01835 823322. SAC Consulting is a Division of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).