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[from Permaculture News No. 20 Autumn 1990]


by Chris Dixon


Every year we have helicopters around us, coming in low over the bracken covered hills, spraying. Locally, bracken is generally considered a rampant weed, covering an increasing area of the land and rendering it "useless".

On the hillside above where I live a process is taking place which puts bracken at the root of the generation or re-generation of forest. This process is recorded on the hillside, as in many other areas, and can be read from the forms and patterns of life that are manifest there now.

The main cover is still bracken, a dense covering, growing through its own annual mulch which together with the deep shade it casts, effectively suppresses almost all other plant forms. The whole area is divided, maze-like, by sheep paths. You will find a few isolated trees that have managed to get some sort of foothold in the bracken and survived the sheep, but not many; usually they'll be Rowan, some just poking out above the bracken, others, clean-trunked, reaching ten or twenty feet.

In amongst the bracken are patches of darker green gorse, from a single plant to large thickets. The bracken provides potash, the gorse fixes nitrogen and like the bracken, provides a heavy, weed-suppressing mulch. Gorse likes to grow in patches, extending outwards with newer growth as the centre matures and begins to die back. It can be seven or eight feet high by then and often collapses in high winds, leaving space and allowing light in. This is where the trees really begin. The smaller, denser young growth around the perimeter of the patch can act as an effective barrier to the sheep, and trees will grow rapidly given this chance.

On this hillside, birch dominates this stage of the process though it can be willow, hazel or
mixes. The gorse and bracken are soon shaded out by the close growing trees. In places you can still see the dead gorse curling in amongst the birch trunks. And in some of these little copses of trees you will find the oak who will go on to provide the basis of the new forest.



About an acre at Argel was very up and down rough grazing with two big patches of gorse, say fifty feet by twenty or thirty. This was the first area from which all grazers, other than feral deer, were excluded. A close examination of the gorse was exciting; I could see the tops of young trees beginning to show. Even after three years and various explorations I still come across trees that I have not spotted before, so good is the gorse as protector.

My work with gorse grew largely from an urge to speed up the re-generation of forest but I was also intrigued by various references, some local, to gorse being used as a winter feed for animals. A 1799 Encyclopaedia Brittanica recommended a four year cropping rotation, cutting the gorse back to the stump. It also said that an acre of gorse would provide sufficient winter feed for six horses. This sounded interesting. However, I have an instinctive fear of making rapid changes to land, especially when involving cropping. I also found within a few years that cutting back to the stump can allow bracken to return, a reversal of the re-generation process. Now I work selectively, depending mainly on the lie of the land and what else is there. Steep slopes are well protected by gorse and here I will only top it if it starts to collapse before trees are fully established. Where the slope is not so marked I cut the gorse at maybe one to two feet from the ground. It soon sends out many strong young shoots from the stump. I tie the cut gorse tightly in bundles and hang them up for the animals.

The horses, Welsh cobs, find this especially attractive and will leave hay until they finish the gorse. Goats too, though not eating all the green, browse it heavily and strip the bark off. The remaining bundles of sticks can be used for kindling or used in planting-mounds or whatever. Sheep are not as keen on it in this cut form, their mouths not quite up to it, though they will graze it in severe winters. I have seen a drawing of a simple farm-made machine which is in the folk museum at St. Pagan's. This was used to crush the spines of the gorse so it could be fed to sheep and cattle. As yet I've not had the chance to make one.

Back at the gorse patch, by cropping from one side, the patch will gradually move over the years, advancing on the further side into perhaps bracken dominated areas, conditioning the soil. providing a source of green winter fodder and leaving the young forest in its wake. To a certain extent, the number and type of trees that the gorse will foster is dependant on having plenty of mature trees nearby as a source of seed and we're lucky in this at Argel. But there's nothing to stop you collecting seed from elsewhere and throwing it into the gorse patch; collapsing centres are good places but also the perimeters, if the land is not grazed, where light penetrates. And of course trees can be planted straight into the rich soils amongst the cropped gorse.


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