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Strong and gentle ‘bruisers’

Two men and two horses standing in an area of dense bracken.
Bracken bruising using horses in Purbeck. | © Cathy Lewis/National Trust

Horses are back helping us with countryside management in Purbeck. This time they’re ‘bracken bruising’, which involves pulling rollers over large expanses of bracken to crush the stems.

This sounds drastic but it’s a sustainable way of supressing the growth of bracken without the need for chemicals, while using horses reduces missions and pollution. Bracken spreads rapidly via spores and underground stems, and can shade out other heathland and grassland plants. This causes a decrease in the number of insects that feed on pollen and nectar, and in turn, a reduction in all the animals that feed on the insects.

Before any bracken bruising takes place, rangers check the area and mark any birds’ nests so they aren’t disturbed. The slow progress of the horses, and sound of the rollers, encourage other wildlife to scurry or slither away.

The work is being undertaken by specialist local contractor, Toby Hoad, with his two Comtois horses (one of the oldest breeds of draft horses), and James Foster with his Shire horse (a British rare breed and one of the world’s biggest horses).

In some targetted areas that aren’t suitable for the horses, the work is being carried out by Trust staff using mechanical rollers. The aim isn’t to control all the bracken, but to keep a balance between it and other plants.

Pictured are Toby Hoad with Celine, and James Foster with Flynn (the black and white Shire).