Scything for Cornwall’s wildlife

Tuesday 5th June 2018

This summer Cornwall Wildlife Trust volunteers have been re-equipped to continue their essential, hands on conservation work to look after Cornwall’s wildlife and wild places. Due to hard work and expansion of the Upstream Thinking volunteers, original equipment is wearing out fast. Thanks to top-up funding from South West Water, they are now enjoying some high-quality new tools and wet weather gear.

The conservation volunteer groups help to deliver a ‘living landscape’ by improving and creating places for wildlife across the Cornish countryside. While Nature Reserves provide space for many rare and exciting plants and animals, Cornwall is 80% agricultural land, which must be farmed in a way that allows wildlife to survive beyond protected areas. The Trust’s farm advisers encourage a type of farming where food production and wildlife can both succeed. Farmers are under pressure to produce high quality food and cannot always prioritise wildlife conservation, so a helping hand from the volunteers can be a very welcome intervention. This often kicks off a positive relationship between farmers and the Trust which leads to other ways of working together for the benefit of wildlife and farm business.

South West Water often benefits from the work of the volunteers, especially in areas where drinking water is collected from rivers and reservoirs. The drinking water treatment process is challenged by soil, algae and pesticides when they are washed off agricultural land into the rivers. By using volunteers with scythes instead of heavy machinery, the risk of soil damage and erosion to rivers is reduced. Volunteers help maintain Cornish Hedges, which are not only superb for wildlife, but also provide a barrier to hold up surface flow and capture pollution before it gets to the river. Using hand tools to control weeds on riverside fields reduces the need for spraying pesticide, protecting the watercourse and benefitting South West Water and river wildlife.

Volunteers learn traditional skills while out on task like scything and hedge laying. Scything is a great way of opening up meadows to allow grazing animals back in and prevent abandonment or cultivation. Scything or grazing help hold back advancing scrub, like bracken, bramble or blackthorn, so preventing over-domination. Scrub is great in its own right and provides shelter and food for many creatures, but it is important to keep some areas short, so that lower-growing plants get enough sunlight. Grassland wildflowers, like the beautiful, indigo-coloured Devil’s Bit Scabious, which is also home to the rare and striking Marsh Fritillary butterfly, rely on open areas created by grazing or scything.

Volunteers use a range of other traditional techniques to mimic natural processes, helping to maintain a rich diversity of habitats, plants and animals. Carefully controlled small-patch burning minimises harm to animals and helps create a mosaic landscape which is great for diversity. Volunteers practice the ancient craft of repairing Cornish hedges and these have recently been nationally recognised as outstanding natural habitat, comparable to that of old oaks, teeming with homes, food and providing safe corridors across the landscape for a myriad of species.

Thanks to ongoing support from the Trust’s members and funders like South West Water, conservation volunteering provides an opportunity to benefit wildlife and water quality, where people can also learn traditional rural skills, get fresh air and exercise and build networks.
Get involved by checking out volunteering opportunities with the Trust at www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/volunteer, or join the Trust to support its mission to create a Living Landscape, www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/join.