WE ARE just beginning this year’s programme of clearing bracken across about 90 hectares of open heathland in the New Forest. Bracken is a vigorous and dominant plant that can in some areas create a tall, dense unbroken canopy, growing up to two metres in height. In the autumn, this canopy collapses forming a thick litter mat (known locally as ‘thatch’) that rots down slowly. Over a period of several years, there’s a build-up of mat that smothers most other low growing plants, which is why it needs to be cleared.
Forage harvesting is part of our bracken control programme and takes place each year between now, and the end of October. We target different areas, on a rotational basis, where the bracken is rapidly expanding at the expense of other plants and flowers that are important for wildlife. The cut material is removed and this will improve the site for Forest stock to graze.
The bracken is cut using one of our FC tractors with a tractor-mounted forage harvester and two contractors will also help us get this year’s programme of work completed.
We focus on clearing bracken over acid grassland in primarily flatter, easy access sites that are free of obstructions. The cut material is blown into a hopper, enabling it to be removed from site and therefore leaving the ground free of the accumulated litter mat.
Before we select work sites, surveys are undertake to check for the presence of rare plants, Scheduled Ancient Monuments and the team works outside of the season for birds that nest of the heathlands.
Once cut, the bracken is transported to a central storage site in the Forest where it is heaped to enable the composting process to take place.
The huge pile reaches minimum temperatures of around 60C and the heap is regularly turned (2-3 times per year) water is also added to aid this process.
Maintaining this temperature eradicates any traces of carcinogens that may be present in the bracken, especially the spores.
On average, we produce 2,000 cubic metres of forage harvested material each year, which would almost fill an entire Olympic-sized swimming pool!
For more information about the New Forest, visit: www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest