In January 2016 the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust Ranger Team embarked on a programme of habitat management, restoration and maintenance on the Island of Gugh.  Since this time we have returned, mainly in the early parts of each year, to add new areas to our work programme and maintain areas worked on in previous years. 

We've just passed the four year anniversary of the work starting and we have gone a bit American, as the American anniversary gift for Year Four (fruit and flowers) seems rather appropriate in this instance.


Why Gugh?

When we first announced this programme of work, back in 2016, it wasn't very well received within some sections of our community, both resident and visiting; this is often the case with many aspects of conservation work, particularly when noticeable and big changes take place.  Consequently, we tried to provide as much information as we possibly could regarding what our Ranger Team would be doing and the reasons this work was being carried out.

Gugh is just one of Scilly's Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  SSSI's are sites which have statutory protection as they are the best examples of the UK's flora, fauna, geological or physiographical features. Scilly boasts 26 SSSI's and 24 of these are looked after by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust! 

Species such as the nationally rare Orange birds-foot (Ornithopus pinnatus), rare Lichens such as Golden hair (Teloschistes flavicans) and Tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) and a breeding colony of the internationally important Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) and more are listed in the SSSI citation; calling this tiny Island home.

Gugh used to be the home for three rare plant species Shore dock (Rumex rupestris), first discovered in 1893, still extant in the 1960s but now extinct; Small Adder's-tongue (Ophioglossum azoricum) which sadly has not been seen since at least the mid-1980s and Four-leaved allseed (Polycarpon tetraphyllum) which was recorded in 1939 and 1940; although it may be too late for species such as this, mainly due to climate change, it is important that other native species are supported and encouraged where possible.

The history of Scilly's vegetation is not particularly well documented but it is fairly well reported that the hedges and shelter belts, which we are familiar with today, are relatively recent in terms of Scilly's historical timeline.  Evergreens, such as Pittosporum (Crassifolium) and Coprosma (Repens) both native to New Zealand, have been introduced during the last one-two hundred or so years; prior to this the only protection from wind was in the form of stone walls or hedges.

These evergreens have flourished in Scilly, as a result of our mild climates and wildlife. With frost rarely occurring and the seeds being spread by mammals and birds the result is these trees spreading and popping up in many unexpected places; where once they were confined to the inhabited and worked Islands they are now also found on most of the uninhabited Islands.

The trees are quick growing (which is the main reason why they were introduced) and as such they are an invasive species, spreading quickly across the grasslands and heathlands and blocking out light for the smaller plant species, causing them to fail to thrive or vanish completely. 

In addition to this they also pose a challenge to our breeding seabirds; turning optimal breeding habitats of open grassland and heathland with clean, clear views and granite boulder or carn vantage points, into wooded areas not favoured by the birds, who are wary of predators.  


So, what has been done?

Since early 2016, when the Rangers embarked on this piece of work, they have been concentrating their efforts on various areas of Gugh in order to manage the spread of invasive non-native Pittosporum; restoring and maintaining habitat for wildlife, in this especially beautiful corner of Scilly.

In 2016 the Rangers first foray onto the Island saw them focussing on the neck between Bar/The Bite and DropNose Porth where Pittosporum was cut, brash burnt and stumps treated to prevent re-growth.  Scattered groups of trees and existing hedgerow boundaries were left and all large pieces of wood were stacked as habitat piles. 

Subsequent visits, since this time, have seen the Rangers revisiting this area whilst adding new locations and also clearing around archaeology and seabird breeding sites across the Island.

Head Ranger, Darren, explained that the aim of this work was to stop any further encroachment by the trees onto the grassland and heathland of Gugh; with the Rangers working to create a mosaic of different grassland vegetation heights, with delicate species such as Orange Bird's Foot and Clovers in the short turf areas and the nationally scarce Balm-leaved Figwort (Scrophularia scorodonia) and Babington's Leek (Allium ampeloprasum babingtonii) in the longer areas.  The boundary between the short and tall vegetation creating shelter and areas of different temperatures which is also excellent for insects.


Setbacks...

In 2017 we had a set back when a series of unfortunate events conspired against us and saw one of the small bonfires, used to burn brash, reigniting in hurricane force winds some 72 hours later.  The fire had been turned in, doused and deemed safe to leave. High tides meant that our Ranger Team and local Fire Crews could not attend the site for some time.  This event was highly unusual and very upsetting given the attention to detail that goes into the planning and execution of work carried out by our Ranger Team across the Islands.

Consequently, reviews of our working practices took place and further updates in working protocols were made as a result; including, but not limited to, the purchase of a mobile "incinerator".  The mobile "incinerator" can be moved between sites, means that brash being burnt is kept off of the ground (keeping heat away from underlying and surrounding vegetation), whilst also facilitating burns at hotter temperatures meaning they happen quicker and with less emissions.


Results... 

As of the end of 2019 the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust Rangers have removed 1.2 hectares of Pittosporum (leaving some scattered groups of trees and existing hedgerow boundaries) and 2.2 hectares of coastal grassland/scrub mosaic are now under management for Orange birds-foot, other maritime grassland species, Balm-leaved figwort and more.

Regular survey and monitoring of the heathland and maritime grassland shows that they remain healthy across the whole of the island with increases in maritime areas of species such as Portland spurge (Euphorbia portlandica), Wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) and Sea carrot (Daucus carota ssp carota); indicator species including Birds-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Thrift (Armeria maritima) and Bucks-horn plantain (Plantago coronopus), Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica), Tormentil (Potentilla erecta) and Heath milkwort (Polygala serpyllifolia) have also been recorded.

After the fire in 2017, regular monitoring was conducted, it took around 18 months before any real signs of recovery were evident.  In September 2019 further surveying of the area impacted by the unplanned fire, evidenced an almost complete cover of young pioneer Heather, along with Birds-foot trefoil, Cat's ear (Hypochaeris radicata), Heath milkwort and Tormentil; Lousewort still remains rare in this area but, as it parasitises on fine grasses and other plants, this is to be expected, until they become better established.

This year, 2020, we are expecting a Natural England Condition Survey of Gugh SSSI; these are carried out every six years, with the last carried out in 2014.  Comparisons will be drawn; we hope to further evidence the positive botanical outcomes, as a result of the long-term work programme implemented by our Rangers.  

Since 2016 when this phased programme of habitat management and restoration began, we have also seen increases in some of our breeding seabird species across the Island too; including Lesser black-backed Gulls, Manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) & Storm petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus).  This will no doubt be for a variety of reasons, including the removal of rats, but we cannot underestimate the importance of vegetation management in this positive outcome either.

Additionally our annual programme of management means that scrub across the Island is at different ages and stages of its development throughout the year.  Providing species like the extremely localised (only occuring in Scilly, Lundy and a few places in Cornwall) Nothris moth (Nothris congressariella) with plants like nationally rare Balm-leaved Figwort, on which it's whole lifecycle depends.


As with many things in conservation results tend to be "a long time coming" and are rarely big and showy.  In an age where people are used to instant gratification and outcomes this can make justification of land management and habitat restoration practices, for nature, incredibly difficult. 

Five years into this programme of work we are starting to see some really positive outcomes across Gugh and in a variety of species.  We are hopeful that this upward trend will continue within Scilly's, often unnoticed, Special Species and that ongoing survey and monitoring work will evidence further the benefits being experienced by, and the accomplishments of, our wildlife as a result.