The Annual Reed Cut

As part of a stewardship agreement with Natural England, one eighth of the reedbed within the SSSI has to be cut on rotation each winter to prevent a build-up of leaf litter and a gradual succession from reedbed to scrub and eventually to wet woodland. The cutting schedule has been designed to eliminate the consecutive cutting of adjacent compartments and to ensure that newly cut areas are bordered by some reedbed at least 3-5 years old. Reed cutting at a small scale increases habitat heterogeneity and species richness at a landscape level. Dispersal ability will influence how effectively invertebrates can recolonize an area after it has changed through management. To maximize recolonization after cutting, uncut patches are left near cut areas to provide a source of new colonists for young reed in spring. For the same reason the objective is to produce a mosaic of different aged reeds rather than a gradient along or across the reedbed.

The reed should be cut during November, or later, when the stems have stopped growing and hardened, and the leaves have faded and drooped. Cutting can take place until the spring when either new reed growth appears or birds start nesting in the reedbed. At South Milton Ley the site has been divided into sixteen compartments, with a target of two to be cut annually on rotation over an eight-year cycle. The advantages of longer rotations include fewer disturbances to wildlife, with more time for re-colonisation from the surrounding areas, a reduced strain on resources and compliance with the conditions of a Countryside Stewardship Agreement with Natural England, which requires 10-15% to be cut annually. This entails cutting and clearing about 1.5 hectares each winter. We have specialist cutting-equipment but, once cut, the reeds have to be gathered into piles and burnt.

As with many environmental societies in the UK the majority of Devon Birds’ members are around or above retirement age and there are limits to the amount of physical work they are able to do in a day. Although we receive help from the National Trust, (Devon Birds also manages a neighbouring reserve for them), manpower has proved to be the limiting factor in recent years and has necessitated cutting on two dates, which, in turn, makes it difficult to schedule as the reeds have to be relatively dry to burn and the wind speeds cannot be too high. Future reed cuts will be publicised in advance on this blog and additional hands are always welcome!

The positive benefits of cutting are clearly demonstrated by the vigorous regrowth of new young reeds in this document: Reed cut regrowth