Hopes Estate Juniper
Heading south out of Edinburgh on a cool and lightly overcast morning, the Lammermuir Hills lay low and rumpled along the East Lothian skyline. It is a deceptive view as they suddenly loom large rounding a bend past Gifford, the nearest village.
Today was setting up the baseline survey for monitoring the impact of sheep on a large stand of juniper, the largest extent of juniper in the area, and possibly in the whole of south-east Scotland.
The Estate manages the upper hills for grouse, and keeps sheep on the lower reaches. The juniper lies on either side of the Hopes Water, just down from the dam head of the Hopes Reservoir, and up the glen into the higher hills.
The keeper had said that the sheep have four hefts on the estate, and pointed them out. Following the principle of least effort for maximum return, we chose two of the hefts: one five minutes up the track from the hard standing where the car was parked, and the other directly over the Hopes Water from there.
We were going to lay out two transects, or lines across the hillside, and sample 25 juniper bushes on each to see how much browsing there would be on them by sheep.
The first transect involved getting across the water, which was easily accomplished, then up the slope to the juniper. There were plenty of junipers strung along a narrow band of hill above the steep slope down to the water, armed with a compass, gps, recording form and a roll of bright electricians’ tape, myself and our Flora Guardian volunteer, Caspian Richards, set about tagging the junipers.
The sun decided to come out rather than hide behind rain, so it was a pleasant day for marking and measuring the bushes. Rabbits had nibbled around the base of many of the junipers, so we were looking above 50cm height to see if the sheep had had a go too, as the rabbits couldn’t reach above that. It turned out that with plenty of grass and blaeberry around this summer, the sheep went for that more palatable option.
Back across the burn in time for lunch, then up the track for Transect 2. This went quickly as we now had a system for tagging and recording, and with the sun in a beautiful blue sky, beaming down on the green grass and purple-brown heather, it was a joy to be there at that time.
Above: a well-nibbled juniper.
With the baseline data gathered, we sauntered back to the car in the warm afternoon sun – a change from the last time I was there, with a keen wind whining down the glen from the reservoir and little white flakes of snow whirling around.
Data will be gathered twice a year, to assess the plants before winter, and then after winter to see if the amount of forage available for the sheep is enough to keep them from eating the juniper and inhibiting the growth of new bushes.
A simple survey to set up and carry out, but will give us valuable information about the behaviour of sheep in an upland setting, and help us assess if the juniper there can be sustained for years to come.