Twice in the past week I have been called upon to be more buffalo like. The first was under instruction from my wife who, much to the amusement of our neighbours, tasked me with trampling some freshly sown seeds into our newly prepared front garden as we try and establish a wildflower meadow. The second was using a shiny new piece of machinery we bought with funds from our Natural England grant during some habitat enhancement work on Astmoor saltmarsh.

Large herbivores play a significant role in maintaining open habitats, historically species such as the mighty aurochs and gigantic Irish elk would have roamed around much of the UK keeping pioneering scrub vegetation in check and cropping grassland to allow a diverse range of species to flourish. They were also very good at breaking up the ground as they moved around, and with their wanderings helped to press new seed into the ground that ensured good contact with the soil. This in turn created prime habitat for ground nesting birds such as meadow pipits, lapwings and skylarks that require a mixture of grassy and open areas to nest and forage in.

Skylarks favour open areas and different heights of grass to nest successfully. By creating areas of short grassland we hope to encourage more of these declining species to breed on the saltmarsh. Photograph by A.Wolfenden

In many locations grazing continues to be an effective management practice for maintaining a healthy and diverse saltmarsh, with cattle species such as belted Galloways or English longhorns being used in place of the long-lost wild species. However, in some places grazing is not an option. This is often due to constraints such as cost, landowner permission and difficulties in ensuring good animal welfare. However, research has shown that all is not lost and there are other methods of management that can replicate the benefits of grazing. That is why last week we pulled on our wellies, grabbed some tools and harnessed our inner large herbivore!

There are a few pieces of machinery that can be used to manage grassland and our new scythe mower is a very good grazer alternative, it has been specially designed to be used on habitats such as meadows and allows us to trim the vegetation much more effectively than with a traditional mower. In fact, Neil from The Conservation Volunteers was able to mow twelve 16m2 skylark plots in just under two hours! The grass clippings have been moved to one side ready for the next big spring tide to take it away and skylarks were seen investigating the plots just a few days later!

Our new scythe mower in action! We aim to cut the vegetation in each of the twelve skylark plots once per year. This will keep the fast-growing couch grass from growing too long and by cutting it early in the season we hope to encourage grazing species such as geese to help us keep the grass short! Photograph by Mersey Gateway Environmental Trust

We’re hoping that these plots will not only be of benefit to the skylarks too. Whilst I was out on the saltmarsh, I recorded all of the plant species growing in each of the plots (it didn’t take long, each one contained only couch grass!) and at the end of the summer we will revisit the plots and see if mowing has allowed other saltmarsh plant species to grow.

We have a series of really high tides over the next couple of months which will completely cover the saltmarsh with water. This means we’re unlikely to see any nesting behaviour until around April but we have heard skylarks singing and there have been around 200 lapwings hanging around the flooded areas on Astmoor saltmarsh. Fingers crossed some of them will be over to check out our hard work soon.

Our Mersey Plankton project starts in February, and we’ll be providing updates on the species we record over the next few months. We have two surveys in the summer, one in June and one in August where we’ll be asking you if you’d like to come and join in! More details to follow but please email or message us on our social media pages if you’d like to hear more information.

A view of one of our skylark plots from the air. These areas will hopefully encourage more skylarks to nest in the area and encourage a more diverse plant community to establish. Photograph by Mersey Gateway Environmental Trust