What next for the Quantock mires?

We have just commissioned and received a survey of all 29 Quantock mires, carried out for us by a professional botanist Dr James McGill. The aim of the survey was to find out what  uncommon plants are present (or not) in each mire and, importantly, its overall condition. All of them are in the Quantocks Site of Special Scientific Interest, the overall aim of which is to maintain them all in “favourable” condition. Yet of the 29 only one is in good condition, 15 are acceptable though they have some problems and 13 are in bad condition for a variety of reasons. 

All the mires result from springs and seepages, sometimes augmented by direct rainfall runoff, creating permanently wet ground in which a distinctive collection of plants can flourish. Importantly, they are poor in nutrients so that, perhaps paradoxically, they hold a greater variety of species than in enriched sites off the hills where just a few vigorous plants dominate. 

Their existence also depends on their being grazed as if they were not they would turn to woodland – downy birch and willows favour damp ground and, having wind-borne seeds, colonise quickly. However, too much grazing prevents plants from flowering and trampling quickly creates bare mud. Deer wallows are especially good at that. 

No doubt over the ages, every mire has had its good and bad times, depending on how many livestock were on the hills, what the weather was doing – this is not the first hot summer since prehistory – and other factors. The fact that their plant assemblages have survived at all is down to deep roots, long-lasting seed that will lie in the ground for decades awaiting the right moment to germinate and perhaps also to the occurrence of fires, burning over the ground and killing colonising trees and shrubs to give the small plants their chance.

At our Ramscombe site where, with the Commoners’ agreement, we have been excluding grazing through the summer months, we have found 27 wildflower species, 24 different mosses, 21 kinds of  grasses, sedges or rushes and five ferns. We also have seven species of trees or shrubs which will need control; most of these have come in since we put up the fence in summer 2020. And we have a bit of a problem with purple moor-grass tussocks that suppress other plants and need summer grazing to control. Even so, it is the one site that James has ranked as in good condition. 

As we look for the first time at the overall condition of all the mires on the hills what do we find? Some are under-grazed and growing scrub and rhodo; these we can clear by hand. Some are overgrazed and trampled; these may need fencing but clearly we may not prevent livestock from access to water for drinking. One large and species-rich site does need more grazing than it gets at present. One or two appear to have lost some water input due to track repair work diverting flows; that can be fixed. The deer wallows have doubtless been giving solace to deer for ever and I would not wish to come between a stag and his bath night.   

Whatever is done will need the agreement of the landowner and the affected Commoners as well as with Natural England, the AONB and possibly the relevant Parish Council. Fencing on commonland needs consent from The Planning Inspectorate. Paperwork is inescapable.

We will be talking to all the players over the coming months to see what can best be done and how many more of these gems can be brought up to the standard that the Ramscombe mire has achieved for itself with the agreement of the Commoners, some excellent fencing and a lot of admiration.

John Andrews