North TillyDaff is an area of phenomenal natural potential, spanning over 500,000sqm just outside of Echt.
Whilst the farm is renowned for its delicious vegetables, and is home to a wide variety of species, a cocktail of different ecological issues was damaging the grasslands, woodlands and wetlands that had been set aside for wildlife.
Following a productive walk with the farms owners, we set about conducting botanical, habitat, and animal surveys within the dwindling summer months following the initial lockdown.
The following details the methods we are taking to change the future for the species that live on the farm, as well as just a small number of the techniques that we carry out to create a better environment.
Click the following links to read about a specific habitat:
We began with an initial walkover survey, mapping the different habitats and zones based off of changing floral diversity, or geographic features that could prove useful in dividing the area. By doing this we build up an idea of what is already present, as a means to provide the 'foundation' for the higher quality habitat we are designing as an end result.
As we expected from the conversations with the landowner, the woodlands were in a critical state of overgrazing, an unfortunate result of deer fencing that has blocked in a population of Roe Deer. With nowhere to go, these deer have multiplied over a number of years, and now graze the understory at four or five times the level at which it should be. Deer are selective grazers, eating herbs and wildflowers before moving on to the grasses, which meant that any of the more interesting species that might have been present when the deer population was lower, have been eaten into local extinction. The good news is that they are likely present in the forest soil's seedbank, though this is useless if these plants are then eaten as soon as they germinate.
To alleviate this, a culling of the deer population has been prescribed, in order to alleviate the pressure on ground flora.
The other main issue with the woodland is the lack of available light. The woodland is a young one, being planted 15 years ago by the landowners. The trees have taken to the land very well. Indeed, so well that there are areas of overcompetition and overstocking of trees in large areas of the woodland. We've prescribed a treatment of selective felling over the course of several years to open the canopy up, to allow the surviving trees to flourish, as well as allow more light to the understory, which will benefit greatly from this, once the deer problem has been removed.
Following the above changes, we're working with Vital Veg to begin seeding and planting of woodland species with varying degrees of shade tolerance throughout the woodland. By getting the understory started with species such as globeflower Trollius spp. and common dog violet Viola riviniana, we will encourage a greater insect diversity, which will in turn generate a greater animal and plant diversity that will only grow in time. The logs from the felled trees will be used as a mixture of posts, log piles and scattered wood, to create further habitats as refugia for overwintering invertebrates.
Whatever the state of your woodland, a customised set of measures can rapidly turn around it's condition for the benefit of both you and the wildlife that live there. There is no such thing as a lost cause!
There are numerous large, unimproved grasslands across the farm. Similar to the woodlands though, there has been no management carried out over the past fifteen years. The deer that have been overgrazing the woodland have also selectively eaten the wildflowers from the grasslands around the farm as well, leaving large areas of overgrown grasslands, lacking any real diversity.
The grasslands at the Vital Veg Farm have a rather unique problem, in that they are both under-grazed (with large swathes of rank grassland), and over-grazed (with species of plant that support more animals being targeted). Like most grasslands, these areas need to be part of a grazing regime, but the deer aren't the ideal candidates to carry this out. As a general rule in a wildlife meadow, you want about 20-30% of the land to be covered by tall vegetation, 70-80% to be short grasses (5-15cm tall), and around 5% shrubbery (gorse, broom etc.) to create sufficient areas of refuge for ground nesting birds to breed, for reptiles to hide and for insects to hibernate in. In its current state, the ground is too cold, too smothered by the grasses to effectively support many plant species. One of our first indications of this was despite low levels of human disturbance across many of the grasslands, there were very few reed buntings, sedge warblers or skylarks, that we expected to see. This told us that despite being disturbance-sensitive species, something else was wrong. A second indicator was the lack of ants present in the grasslands. Despite being midsummer, almost all of the grasslands lacked sufficent open areas to allow the sun to warm the ground to allow ants to create nests. Ants are critically important to forming a fluid, healthy ecosystem, and their absence led us to the conclusions we had above.
Fortunately, alleviating these problems is a relatively straightforward thing to do! Deer control is already underway, we now just needed to get the sward height down to a manageable level. By working with a fantastic group of graziers, we have set up a grazing plan to have Shetland Cattle graze across the land annually, between October and February to hammer the sward height down. This older breed of cattle are fantastic at conservation grazing, creating just the right mix of sward height to open the area up. Their hooves create open areas for insects and reptiles to warm on, and they can plough through the overbearing grasses across the site. We are excited to see the results of this winter's grazing results!
We use management targeted directly at the problems your ecosystem is having, informed by careful surveys of your land. We create a management plan that works for you - targeted to your needs!
The wetlands at Vital Veg are a mixed assortment of species. Two smaller pools, and one large lake constitute the majority of the wet areas on site.
All three of these water are very overgrown with unbranched burr-reed, being the only water's edge species present. Both of these water bodies would have been lost within five years of being surveyed, as silt and encroachment of the burr reeds continues into the water. We're targeting these areas for removal of the burr-reed, and for planting of bulrushes, common reed and wet grasses surrounding the edges.
We plan to create areas of mud for waders to feed, for thicker areas of reed for warblers and moorhens to breed, amongst others!
In the long term, all three bodies of water need silt to be removed from them, in order to reverse their removal.