Folly Farm nature reserve recently welcomed high-tech help on its steep slopes overlooking the Chew Valley. A driverless mower may seem surreal, but certainly has its advantages. The remote-controlled flail mower can tackle terrains that might daunt a tractor. Its low centre of gravity and caterpillar tracks ease uphill work. Operated by handheld controls at some distance from the machine, it is also safer than enduring the vibrations (let alone the risk of being overturned) of driving a tractor.
The reason for the robot was to munch down some of Folly Farm’s thorny scrub which is threatening to smother important, wild-flower rich, limestone grassland.
Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s due to changes in farming. It is a shame to lose their beauty but so what? Why are wildflowers important? Wildflowers matter because they are a food source: just one species can support an entire wildlife community from fungi, insects, spiders and worms to birds and small mammals.
In the web of life every organism plays a vital role. For instance, the humble worm helps break down organic matter in the soil and retain nutrients, building soil fertility on which our food supply relies. Hence why AWT’s Land Management team are keeping scrub in check at Folly Farm. Scrub does not stand still. Left unchecked it can develop into what is called secondary woodland, shading out any grassland that remains.
Of course, scrub also plays its role in the web of life: it includes nectar-rich bushes such as hawthorn, blackthorn, elder, rose, bryony, clematis and honeysuckle. Brambles flower over-winter providing food when the wildlife store is bare, and also creates a prickly cover, ideal for birds in which to nest and shelter.
It is all about balance and biodiversity. Too much scrub (or in the wrong place) can be damaging. Scrub’s overarching brambles block sunlight from reaching emerging wildflowers. The combination of too much shade and falling leaves results in enrichment of the soil which favours vigorous grasses which outcompete delicate wildflowers.
Those birds which seek shelter in the scrub also need insects to eat. In their turn, the insects need wildflowers which in their turn need open grasslands.
Back to Folly Farm, and the futuristic bot chewing up brambles. Living Landscape Assistant at Avon Wildlife Trust Charlotte Targett, who has a special license, operated the robot mower. Meanwhile, our invaluable band of volunteers were on hand to rake the cut-down branches, gathering them into piles of cuttings at the bottom of the hill to create future wildlife habitats.
The reward will be seen this spring and summer as the wildflowers bloom bright with the pink, yellow, blue and purple of orchids, scabious and knapweed - a welcome sight for wildlife and us humans.
Find out more about visiting Folly Farm or any of Avon Wildlife Trust's 30 nature reserves.