When Scilly's Cottages were thatched and livestock more viable our wetland sites were "managed" as a matter of course and as a part of every day life. As years moved on and people's living needs and habits changed the wetlands were left to "go wild".

Old Town when cottages were thatched © GibsonsThis has meant that the quality of the wetland sites overall, and in particular the reedbeds, has changed; in many respects decreasing in terms of usefulness and biodiversity.  This can have all sorts of consequences not just for the creepy crawlies and furry and feathered critters that rely on them but also the people that live on St Mary's.

The winters usually see our Ranger Team on Lower and Higher Moors managing the reed and willow, as this is the best time of year to carry out the work (it can look quite drastic but don't worry it grows back quickly!) for an explanation as to what the Rangers do and a bit of the reasoning behind it, read on!

A bit of the history....

Willow coppicing at Higher Moors during 2018 - © BareFoot PhotographerWithin the islands reeds have traditionally been used for thatching and livestock bedding as well as in agriculture as a fuel for burning, grazing cattle or creating screens to shelter plants.  In recent times these practices have become less common or died out all together and as a result the management of our wetland sites, which happened as a bi-product of human's finding a use for nature, ceased.

Between the 1970's and the late 1990's very little was done in terms of management of the wetland sites on St Mary's and as a result they began to dry out; becoming overrun by willow and bramble, both very thirsty plants.

In 1999 the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust cut, raked and burnt areas of reed and rush which hadn't been touched for nearly 30 years, it was overrun with bramble and willow and was hard going.  Since that time small areas have been managed on an ad-hoc basis, but in 2015 the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust Head Ranger implemented a long term programme to manage larger areas of reed on a 4 year rotational basis, and also a programme of willow coppicing and removal.  

Why are our wetlands so important? 

Marsh Thistle now found at both Moors sites following Ranger Team management © BareFoot PhotographerThere are two main wetland sites on St Mary's, one at Lower Moors and the surrounding area and one at Higher Moors and the surrounding area.  They are incredibly important to Island life for a variety of reasons; both are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) being two of the twenty six SSSI's on the Islands and two of the twenty four SSSI's managed and looked after by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust.

The Moors have areas of fresh and brackish water, as they both have exit points into the sea, where on spring high tides the seawater will make its way up the leats and into the Moors.

Wetlands offer incredibly rich and diverse habitats for our invertebrates, plants, birds and mammals.  Due to their size and location our wetlands in Scilly may not be home to such well known species as harvest mice, otters or bittern but it doesn't make them any less important.

They provide food, shelter and breeding grounds for some of our resident wildlife all year round and also for migrating wildlife at various points throughout the year; this is especially evident in September-October when visiting birdwatchers can be found negotiating the mud, trees, bridges, walkways and hides on the hunt for, often elusive, feathered beings amongst the reeds. 

In addition to this the Moors are also vital in terms of providing the majority of our drinking water across St Mary's (supplemented during the summer months by the de-salination plant) as well as flood defences to some key areas of habitation and industry.  The increased growth of willow, bramble and bracken meant that the wetlands were drying out and as a consequence less effective both in terms of water harvesting and flood defences.

The Moors are also home to some of our largest reed beds.

Why manage the reedbeds?

Managed (top) vs Unmanaged (bottom) reed bed at Lower Moors © BareFoot PhotographerAs mentioned earlier until fairly recently our reedbeds were managed as a bi-product of their usefulness; without this type of management "succession" takes place whereby reedbeds gradually become more overgrown with scrub (i.e. bramble & bracken) and drier; as a result different plants grow (i.e. nettles and grasses) and if left reedbeds will eventually develop into woodland habitats.

In the short time that the Moors were "unmanaged" willow became quite well established creating, in some places, pockets of quite dense woodland habitat.

In order to keep our reedbeds healthy, ensure our wetlands don't dry out and disappear and to offer our wildlife diversity of habitats large sections of the reeds are cut on a rotational basis; this also ensures that our wetland sites remain the valuable water catchment areas and flood defences that we all know and love. 

The reasoning behind rotational management is two-fold; firstly, to lessen the visual impact and secondly, to create even more diversity and habitat types.

By cutting the reed and willow during the winter months, growth is encouraged and reed dominance is supported; this occurs as the soil is wetter and the reed has fewer plant species to compete with, as reed can survive in wetter soil.  By cutting the reed and willow in sections on a rotational basis a degree of plant diversity is encouraged without allowing "succession" to take place.  

This project is part funded by DEFRA through the Isles of Scilly AONB

With thanks for the use of Black & White Image of Old Town © Gibsons