Juniper and the moors
Sheep: they do like to eat, and they often like to eat the wild plants that we have an interest in.
So how can we tell if they are damaging the growth of plants like Juniper, or if the plants can survive the number of sheep on the hill?
A new Plantlife project in East Lothian is looking at just this issue, with volunteer involvement to track the impacts. In partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage and the owner of an estate in the Lammermuir Hills, we will be looking at the browsing impact of sheep on the Juniper bushes that form part of the Lammer Law SSSI.
What brought this project about? Well, Plantlife’s work on Juniper is well known, and the local SNH Operations Officer contacted me about management of Juniper on a hillside.
For the past 5 years the estate had an agri-environment contract to take the sheep off the hillside and winter them on inbye further down the estate – known as away-wintering.
This had the benefit of letting the juniper bushes that had been lurking in amongst the heather canopy to shoot up above the heather, where previously they had been grazed level with the heather.
Now, the new round of agri-environment funding doesn’t provide for the estate the option of away-wintering, only off-wintering. This means that the sheep removed from upland sites in winter to another farm, which has financial implications as it is on someone else’s land.
The consequence of this is that the sheep need to go somewhere during the winter, and the climate will force them off the tops and down the hillside to where the Juniper will offer some shelter from the wintry blasts that come roaring down the glen. And something to nibble on.
SNH were concerned about the impact of this on the juniper population which is one of the reasons that the site has been designated. How about fencing it off? The junipers are spread across quite a distance of hillside, and the estate owner wasn’t keen to put in a big fence sectioning off the land.
So if the sheep are roaming freely in amongst the juniper, how do we know if this management is sustainable for the future, or if there is an impact on these slow-growing and rarely regenerating shrubs?
To find this out a site visit was arranged to check out the lay of the land, work out what it was that was needing to be recorded, and could it be done by a volunteer, one of our Flora Guardians?
This we did on a cold and grey day last week, with little specks of snow-like stuff drifting about on the wind. There is nothing like poking about in among junipers to test the mind and come up with a simple monitoring method – mainly because junipers come in all sorts of sizes and shapes: tree-like, sprawling, compact, straggly. All of which makes a simple measurement rather problematic.
So we really had to go back to the basic point – what was it we were wanting to test? Answer: to check if the management is limiting juniper growth and regeneration. So how would we know if it was or not? After hiking about for a bit, poking around in the various stands, and discussing options and techniques, it was really quite simple – to see if they are grazing on the new shoots, and if new seedlings are able to grow.
So there we have it – we walk two 500m lines, sampling bushes along them. We measure any grazing of shoots above 50cm from the ground – below that the rabbits have had a go, and we want to test the impact of sheep alone. Check how much, if any, of the bush has been nibbled around the perimeter: less than 25%? 25-50%? More? And do this twice a year, at the end of summer to see how much summer growth is affected, and the end of winter to see the impact of sheep wintering in the area.
For new seedlings we would need to poke around in the ground layer near to each bush, as juniper seeds don’t roll very far, or under tree perches for the birds that eat them.
We would also gather information on what is growing around the bush, which could tell us something about where juniper likes to grow. And all doable by a Flora Guardian, a Plantlife volunteer. A five year project with a conservation outcome. This is the great value of citizen science – easily measurable aspects that tell us something about the world. And it is also a good illustration of partnership working, with Plantlife, SNH and the estate owner all taking an interest in the well-being of juniper, within a real working environment.
This is what keeps me, as Plantlife Scotland’s Conservation Manager, motivated and interested - the involvement of people and plants, so that wild plants are thriving, valued and celebrated across the country.