The Isles of Scilly support a wealth of different habitats across the whole archipelago, each of these being home to numerous different species.
The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust manages nearly 2,000 hectares of land and coastal foreshore including 24 of the 26 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and 100’s of Scheduled Ancient Monuments. Much of our land is designated as areas of special interest for conservation and environmental purposes, which you can learn about in our Designations section.
Many of the terrestrial areas are managed as nature reserves and are often areas of wildlife-rich habitat which are actively managed by grazing animals and machinery to promote and sustain the species which live there.
We often get asked questions about how we manage the land, what techniques we use, why we use them and what the benefits are. The information on this page should help answer these questions, including those about our grazing work.
What is the role of The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust?
The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust conserves and protects the wildlife of the islands and the sea. We conserve or restore the landscape and archeological sites, and provide public information through various means including Social Media (Facebook, Twitter & our website), working with schools and youth groups, interacting with the public by giving talks and guided walks and volunteering.
The Isles of Scilly are special; their location and climate have created stunning landscapes with a unique mix of plants and animals. As well as wonderful wildlife our sites contain internationally important historical features dating back at least four thousand years. Under the seas, the clear water is home to a wonderful array of marine life.
As the leading local charity responsible for caring for wildlife and historical sites, The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust manages 64 per cent of the land that makes up Scilly. This includes all the uninhabited islands and most of the coastline.
What techniques do you use to manage the land?
The Islands are home to a wonderful variety of wildlife habitats and maintaining these is a delicate balancing act. Habitats require regular action to conserve them for the benefit of wildlife and to maintain access for people. We have three main resources to manage the land:
Staff and volunteers make a real difference with a variety of hand tools that we use. In areas where it is just impossible to gain access with machines, we use slashers and scythes but this is a very time consuming form of management. Under the right conditions it is sometimes appropriate to burn areas of vegetation but it is important that the correct follow-up management is carried out otherwise certain species will dominate.
Brush cutters, chainsaws, ‘walk-behind’ tractors with cutters and flail attachment, a tractor and flail and an all terrain vehicle (ATV) that pulls bracken ‘bruising’ rollers are some of the machines that are used to manage the land where appropriate. We also use local contractors to reduce massive areas of bracken, gorse and bramble and cut footpaths
All of the land we manage is open to the public. If you come across a Trust working party please heed the warning signs and let us stop work, so we can let you go past safely.
Many of our wildlife sites are grazed by cows and ponies. Our herd of Red Ruby Devon cattle creates an open and varied habitat structure. Our pedigree Dartmoor and Shetland-cross ponies crop close to the ground, which is good for wildflowers. It is not just eating plants that the animals benefit wildlife, creating areas of bare earth and their dung is good for insects and other wildlife that feed on insects. For more information about grazing see the grazing questions.
What are the benefits to the natural environment of the work that you do?
The heathland habitats and historic landscapes on the Isles of Scilly are of international importance. Without management they would become degraded and obscured by the encroachment of vigorous species such as gorse, bramble and bracken, which would also prevent access to these areas.
By using a range of land management techniques we are able to help create a diverse range of habitats from short swards that benefit rare flowers like Scilly’s orange birdsfoot, to tussocky grassland that is good cover for ground nesting birds such as meadow pipits.
Short grass, bare ground and dung is crucial habitat for some invertebrates, which are in turn food for mammals and birds. Cattle grazed on heathlands are also an excellent source of locally produced meat and milk. It has been shown that well managed heathland habitats capture and reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Grazing animals do release methane, a ‘greenhouse gas’, but the positive effect of having habitats in good condition far outweighs this.
What would happen if you didn’t manage the land, why not just leave it to nature?
In the past the heathlands were an important part of the farmed landscape. Heather and bracken were harvested as precious commodities, which would have kept habitats open for grazing livestock therefore saving more sheltered land for the growing of crops.
Changes in lifestyle meant that these activities have stopped. We have been working hard to reverse this trend. If we didn't manage the land, eventually the vegetation would grow up high and be very thick, reducing access to areas of the Islands and restricting views.
Some of the vegetation on the Islands – such as gorse, bramble and bracken is also vigorous and invasive, and if we let it spread large areas would become overgrown and the archaeological sites we are so keen to protect would be damaged and obscured.
In addition to stopping people enjoying the views and access, such thick ground cover would also prevent a lot of other plants growing. We could mow but this is very expensive, it can't be done in all areas and means the vegetation in a large area is all cut at the same time, which looks very artificial. Current cutting and bruising bracken is part of the restoration of habitats to a more sustainable and ‘softer’, more natural form of management such as grazing. We feel that animals do a much better job of removing plant material with less impact to the environment than machinery. The aim is not to eradicate gorse, bracken or bramble, but to include them in a varied habitat where they can provide nectar, berries and cover for wildlife.
How do you contain the cattle and ponies?
Whilst it is necessary to contain grazing livestock we also feel it is important to minimize the impact that this containment has on visually, ecologically and archaeologically sensitive areas.
Where the animals are grazing will depend upon what containment measures we adopt. The options open to us are:
Repairing and re-using existing dry stone walls - This is not always possible where stone has been removed or walls are not high enough.
Standard three strand plain wire on wooden posts with wooden gates and gate posts
An electric wire on plastic posts
Some people worry that electric fences are dangerous, but they are not. A shock from a fence is similar to a static shock you get when a metal handrail is touched after walking on synthetic carpet. Electric fences are temporary and are taken down as soon as the animals have been moved, but the benfits of grazing are long lasting.
Our grazing animals have been selected because of their good nature and are docile, and are used to people and dogs. However, as with any animals there are some common sense approaches you are recommended to take whenever you are near them. We have produced a leaflet you can pick up: Top Tips for Walking With Livestock.
I enjoy walking across the Islands – will my access to the grazing areas and other land management areas be restricted?
Care is taken to ensure that all permissive footpaths, tracks and paths remain open in grazed areas, including access for vehicles and paths for horse riders.
If we are using mechanical equipment on site, then do heed the warning signs and let us stop work so you can go past safely.
In grazing areas the choice and type of gate or stile we use will take into account the use and nature of the route. Where practically possible we use pram and wheelchair friendly gates and contain livestock in a way that offers alternative routes for walkers and horse riders but this is not always practical or possible. There is much to consider when fencing a site; including public access, the welfare of our animals, access for vehicles to the site for water bowsers and loading of animals.
Dog walkers are welcome on wildlife sites but there is a need to keep dogs under close control on the sites where grazing is occurring.
Are the grazing and land management processes carried out in the same areas all of the time?
The majority of our management is determined by season, for example we do not cut or clear scrub vegetation during the bird breeding season and the use of grazing animals is targeted so that they are most effective. This may mean a temporary enclosures, using electric fencing, where animals will only graze for a short period or larger grazing units where animals range over a large area for a longer period of time.
Can I get involved with the work of The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust?
There are many ways you can help the Trust; becoming a member will help to support our work financially, and we offer a number of volunteering opportunities. You can view the availability of volunteer placements here.
Who should I contact if I have any questions or queries?
For all enquiries contact us on (01720) 422153 or complete our web enquiries form which can be found here