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Wet & Windy Winter Work on Wingletang

Posted: Friday 18th December 2015 by The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust

Foxgloves breaking through thick gorse ~ © Ed MarshallFoxgloves breaking through thick gorse ~ © Ed Marshall

The third week in December has seen some of the Ranger Team on our most south-westerly inhabited island completing some work; they've enjoyed some mild weather but we have it on good authority that they have been getting a little damp and windswept. (Not at all like the picture above!)

St Agnes is probably better known for The Turk's Head and Troy Town ice cream; however, when the visitor season ends work begins in earnest to ready the island for the following season and ensure it's as prepared as it can be for the battering it will undoubtedly receive from the Atlantic storms and swells over the winter period.

Over the past week some of the Ranger Team have been doing just that; focussing their attentions on Wingletang Down.

Wingletang Down is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and has been cited as such under the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act since the 15th December 1986 - that's nearly 30 years!

The reasons for this designation are numerous but probably the smallest and most interesting are because it is home to the nationally rare Least Adder's-tongue (Ophioglossum lusitanicum) and Orange Birds-foot (Ornithopus pinnatus) amongst other things; these tiny plants actually survive out there!

Sadly, Wingletang is being invaded by thick gorse which has slowly but surely become the dominant plant species on this once rich and varied maritime heathland that has previously supported populations of rare plant species.

There is currently an area of 5.06 hectares (12.5 acres) of dense gorse on Wingletang, and when it becomes so dense and widespread over such a large area it starts to have an impact on  plants and other wildlife which simply cannot survive within this thick mat of vegetation.  

This week the Ranger Team have cut 0.75 hectares (1.8 acres) of this gorse in a series of wavy firebreaks, using our alpine tractor.  (For those of you that are into sport 0.75 hectares totals about the size of an international football pitch).

Why have we done this?

Cutting firebreaks, other than being the responsible thing to do in an area that could suffer greatly should it catch fire, helps to create compartments of gorse which will be easier to manage in the future.

By removing sections of the gorse we are trying to promote the regeneration of heather and grassland that have slowly decreased as the gorse has become more dominant; additionally by creating different ages of vegetation we are providing a variety of habitats for birds, insects and plants.

The wavy edges (or scallops) not only look nicer than straight lines but they help to create micro-climates for insects (you can find out more about wavy edges and how they work in one of our previous blogs "Scallop?  On Samson?".)

Local farmer Mike Hicks grazes Wingletang with his small herd of horned cattle. He says that these new firebreaks will allow the cattle to roam through the down and their grazing will help to keep the areas open in the future.

Grazing cattle act as living lawn mowers keeping low vegetation short and giving wild flowers access to light. Their hooves also create bare patches and push seeds from plants such as heather into the soil, helping them to regenerate. Cattle dung also provides food for beetles and other insects, which in turn provide food for birds.  

Next time you're out that way take a moment to have a look around and why not let us know what you think?  Have a look at what creepy crawlies you can see and if you get any photographs why not share them with us either via Twitter (@ScillyWildlife) or our FaceBook Page?

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