In Aylesbeare Common in the south of England, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is employing horses, cows and Valtras to help restore the fragile balance between flora and fauna. The common is a very visible part of 3500 acres of Southern Lowland Heathland that can be seen when driving along the A3052. The significance of this increasingly rare habitat was recognised back in 1969 when the entire area was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The area is part of the East Devon Pebble Bed Ridge running roughly North-South between the Exe and Otter rivers. Here, human activity over thousands of years has shaped what we see today. Early man denuded the landscape of trees for building and fuel, and as a result the thin topsoil eroded, leaving behind a landscape that has changed little. The soil, such as it is, is acid and will only support acid grasses, bog, marsh and scrub – land that modern farmers would baulk at trying to farm.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) owns just 60 acres of the total area but has management influence over a great deal more, most of which is in the ownership of Clinton Devon Estates. Years ago the estate allowed employees to graze livestock on the common, a tradition that has since died away. The livestock kept the scrub under control, but today there is a danger that the unique balance of flora and fauna will disappear.
As a result the RSPB and other conservation organisations have developed a regime of land management that includes the removal of certain trees and shrubs, some re-landscaping to correct the privations of aggregate removal, plus scraping, mowing and controlled burning to regenerate heather. To assist with this land management, the RSPB has enlisted the help of both animals and machinery.
Cows, horses and Valtra tractors
Initially native Devon cattle were introduced. During the summer the system worked well, but there was little room to grow winter fodder and overwintering became a problem. Today a herd of 35 Galloway cows with calves are shipped in for the spring flush and returned to a farm for overwintering. Initially the cattle will eat the new green grass shoots, but as these decrease they tackle other plants, including silver birch and other saplings. The actions of their feet, trampling scrub, also helps control and promote the growth of plants.
Unfortunately the cattle do not do a complete job controlling unwanted plants, so to help them along four groups of hardy Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies are employed, numbering around twenty in all. Both are endangered breeds, and the animals on loan from their breed trusts.
There is, of course, scrubland and trees that are unsuitable for both the cattle and ponies, and for this the RSPB resorts to machinery. Valtra tractors are used for a variety of maintenance tasks, from mulching scrub and timber extraction to hauling fencing materials and clearing fire breaks. The land, which is being scheduled as a common, required government permission before fencing to contain the livestock could be erected.
Valtra to the rescue
Toby Taylor, RSPB Warden at Aylesbeare explains why they chose Valtra tractors. “They are an excellent all-round tractor and with their Scandinavian heritage ideal for our type of work – no dangly bits underneath to get snagged on scrub.”
As the RSPB relies quite considerably on volunteer labour, the ease with which they can be driven is also appreciated. “We run training courses before staff or volunteers are let loose with machinery of any sort, but it’s an obvious advantage when the machine is simple to operate.”
The RSPB’s first Valtra tractor to arrive at Aylesbeare was a used low hours 110 hp 6650 in 2005, which is still in operation today, mostly with a timber trailer and crane. “We’ve several blocks of mature trees which need attention, thinning or complete removal, and this is an ongoing operation. We sell sawing timber and firewood as a method of generating income.”
The Valtra 6650 worked well and was augmented by a 100 hp N92, which is being swapped for a four-cylinder N101 complete with a forestry fuel tank, front linkage and PTO, air compressor and V46 loader. The N101 is a good all-round machine ideal for the type of work undertaken now and in the future.
A beautiful habit worth preserving
Despite the income from timber, the sites absorb more cash than they generate, a situation eased in part by funding from Natural England and their Higher Level Stewardship Scheme. But the value of the area cannot be counted in terms of money. The sites are home to many rare and diminishing species, including the rare Dartford Warbler, the silver studded blue butterfly, the Southern Damselfly and Kuglean’s ground beetle. Stonechats are often seen, as are nightjars and a host of other unusual flora and fauna.
The area has attracted the attentions of the European Union and is both a Special Area of Conservation and a Special Protection Area. It is home to many species that have evolved, along with us, over an extended period of time. They are part of the food chain, gene pool and much more. In certain areas of the world many species have been lost, and now there is a battle to stop a complete collapse in local ecological systems. Unfortunately there is no laboratory with a fast forward button to see if the efforts will be successful. We just have to wait and see and maintain what we have here in the UK for the future.