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Brushcutting and Cutting Brush

 12th Oct 2016

September arrives, and, as I write this, prepares to vanish into distant memory. This marks me being a quarter of the way through the year already. Which is a little scary. Still, all the more reason to embrace the time I have.

And also embrace a brushcutter. Because September, aside from being the month where the weather takes a turn for the colder, is the month for cutting glades and rides. Oh, could I tell you some stories about cutting glades and rides.
For those readers who have not seen abrushcutter, it can be reasonably defined as a massive knife powered by a two stroke engine on the end of a big pole. Pictures being famously worth a kiloword however, it’s easier to illustrate the device in this manner:



That’s me beginning to open a glade. It doesn’t look like much in the picture, but trust me. I’ve had so much practice on the thing by now that the glade is currently cut tighter than a hipster’s trouser leg.
It is important to study the wiggle while brushcutting. It sounds absurd to say it, but it’s all in the hips. If you don’t wiggle correctly, you just make a mess. If you get it right, you get lovely neat windrows of cut material. This is the modern equivalent of the scythe. Poldark wears no shirt. I wear two. Flying stick fragments hurt.

There are many valid reasons for cutting the glades. Keeping spaces open means that you create extra ‘edge’ habitat, often the most biodiverse part of a woodland structure. Also, you can help prevent succession (the natural tendency of these areas to turn into woodland), and reduce the nutrients in the soil by removing the cuttings. This is good for the wildflowers. It also keeps your volunteers busy. Here are the Polden and Sedgemoor groups clearing the glades of cut material at Great Breach Wood.




But it’s not all brushcutting in September. There’s also… um… actually no, I have pretty much exclusively been brushcutting. And raking, the two activities being so closely related that I suspect they have the same parents.

I did spend a good afternoon checking the health of the landscape at Green Down, and its ability to support large blue butterflies. We identified areas of scrub that need further removal, and discussed how the management plan was intended to work over the coming years. And, and, we found this little beauty.



Hornet Robberfly

That’s right, it’s a fly! For those of you for whom entomology isn’t the inspiring discipline it could be, it’s important to realise this is a fly that is a full inch long. It’s an absolute monster. Debatably the biggest fly in the UK. I don’t know who had this debate, but I am assured it occurred. Hopefully it didn’t turn violent. In any case, it’s a Hornet Robberfly. An intimidating name for an intimidating insect. Not particularly rare in southern England, but an insect that relies on animal dung for its life cycle, further demonstrating the importance of using grazing as a maintenance tool.

Additionally, I’ve been out with First Ecology and the Somerset Bat Group looking at… Any ideas? Bat Group? That’s right, bats. I’ve heard the ‘wet slap’ calls of pipistrelles, the harsh calls of the myotis bats that sound like a tiny machine gun emplacement, and the slow yet curiously funky beat of the Serotine. I heartily recommend getting on bat walks with these guys, you’ll learn a lot. You may need to wait until the bats wake up next year now though.

I did a commercial bat survey with First Ecology which was hands down the must fun I’ve ever had staring at a breeze block wall in the dark for two hours. Admittedly, the competition for that particular accolade isn’t fierce, but this experience wins easily.
The bat highlight for me has been checking the bat boxes in Great Breach Wood, mainly because the bats were visible. As you need a license to disturb these guys, this was a privileged insight into their lives. The bats at this time of year are forming mating roosts, so you often find a male and several females in one box. If in doubt, the male is the one trying to bite you. And really, who can blame him? In one box, we found the remains of an old hornet’s nest, on the back of which was a solitary soprano pipistrelle, and in the corner of which was a noctule. This allowed us to compare one of Britain’s smallest bats with one of Britain’s largest. You can see the size difference in the image below.



The noctule is the BIG one


I also got to help show a group of A-level students round one of our reserves. This was nice, as it always feels good to help inspire the next generation. Until it became apparent they knew more than me. Heartening of course to see the next generation so involved and keen to learn. That’s what it’s all about. And not, contrary to popular belief, doing the hokey cokey and turning around.

Really, that’s about all I’ve got this month. It’s been a month of serious labour, and as I write I have blistered thumbs to prove it. So I will leave you with this thought, concerning miniature ponies. Why, when you give them a whole reserve to graze, do they want to eat the bit you’re stood on?


Mark Green,  eserves Manger South Somreset ponders this question and its philosophical ramifications

Until next time, this is Phil Bruss saying: get out there and see it!