Pigs In Bracken by Chloë Randall - Dunlossit Estate

Chloë Randall - Estate Manager Dunlossit EstateA look at habitat management work using pigs on the Isle of Islay on the Dunlossit Estate. Includes: bracken control in variety of different habitats including moorland, coastal woodland, coppiced woodland and rape fields. There is also advice and FAQ's on running pigs for conservation grazing and photographs showing the effect the pigs have had on the vegetation.

This report was first published on the Grazing Animals Project (GAP) website. Chloë Randall (picture right) Estate Manager of Dunlossit Estate, was kind enough to give me permission to publish this on the Islayinfo website for which I'm very grateful.

Chloë Randall: This is not a scientific report, it is a narrative, a (curly) tale. Our pig project started because Dunlossit Estate's owner, Bruno Schroder, wanted pigs; and so we felt we ought to give him pigs. He had apparently been saying for twenty years that 'pigs are the best answer to managing the woodland' and everyone had laughed. I checked my job description and found that laughing was specifically excluded, so we imported traditional breeds of pig from Dorset 'all the way to Islay, not the easiest of journeys for them (which is why later imports were flown in whenever possible). We had some marvellous effects in the woodland, and started to breed our own to keep the work rolling (it is very difficult to get replacements on a non-pig island). By chance, we put a young boar (future stud) in a convenient corner of moorland to grow to the months of maturity with four male companions (future pork). On a routine visit, we suddenly noticed that 'given a wide choice of ground 'they had selected and thoroughly trashed a knoll of bracken. And had ignored everything else.

Dunlossit Estate: where it all started
Where it all started
Dunlossit Estate: The Pig Laboratory
The pig laboratory

Keen to explore this phenomenon further, I commandeered a recently fenced but otherwise unwanted piece of ground bordering a loch as a pig laboratory. The ground had everything: a scrubby gorge; heather moorland; dense bracken slopes, grassy terraces; boggy peat, gorse thickets, rushy wetland. This area (about 3.75 hectares) has been systematically pigged for five years now, with greater and lesser densities of pig; older and younger animals, and 'obviously 'at different seasons of the year.

Simultaneously, pigs were deployed on a shorter-term basis to areas other than forest where bracken was a problem. These included:
A. a field coming out of rape and due to be reseeded; featuring unploughable bracken slopes
B. recently coppiced hazel woodland where bracken had taken advantage of the sudden access of daylight
C. heather moorland interspersed with bracken (electric fenced for the pig purpose with little success!)
D. a large coastal 'woodland' compartment featuring extensive bracken-infested open ground, and bracken within a tree-lined gorge.
The results have been fascinating and inconsistent 'although generally good. The pigs never do quite what you expect, but when you stop to think about it, they have achieved exactly what you wanted. My unscientific observations (supported by photographs) are as follows:

A the pigs ignored the rape roots entirely and trashed the bracken bank very thoroughly, reducing the bank to bare brown soil. Three years later, the bracken re-growth is noticeably weaker than in neighbouring fields. Unfortunately we cannot return the pigs for fear of the re-seed suffering (although why should it? but can we afford to risk it?) but even without further work, we have increased the grass content in the field for the benefit of the sheep.

Dunlossit Estate - Bracken Bank
The bracken bank in the field, showing pig preferences very clearly
Dunlossit Estate - Bracken bank
The same field from another angle, confirming that the bracken is the forage of choice

B Again the pigs stripped back the undergrowth to the brown soil; and two years later there is dramatically reduced bracken presence within the area. Presumably this was more recently established bracken (following the coppicing) and thus easier to dislodge than in the rape field.

Dunlossit Estate - Unpigged area
The fenceline between the coppiced compartment and the unpigged area clearly revealing the impact of the pigs' work
Dunlossit Estate - coppiced compartment
The remainder of the coppiced compartment, showing the absence of bracken on the slopes

C The pigs appeared to ignore the heather in favour of the bracken 'although we did find a nest built of heather (resembling a pig-sized hill fort), we have some reason to think this was heather which had died due to heather beetle and was thus easy material to gather; elsewhere pigs use rushes and (more rarely) docks for their architectural works. Where the bracken has been removed, there is evidence of regenerating heather; also self-seeded tree regeneration (conifers and hardwood, standing proud in bare soil, unmolested by pigs)

Dunlossit Estate - pigs on moorland
Pigs on moorland 'the dense bracken pasture is in the background
Dunlossit Estate - bracken moorland
Bracken moorland after pig treatment

Dunlossit Estate - middle white pig
A large Middle White pig firmly repudiating accusations of eating heather, and below..
Dunlossit Estate - Pig nest
Pig nest made from dead heather 'actually in the pig laboratory

Dunlossit Estate - young trees
Not the same location, but an illustration of pigs ignoring young trees 'these are planted 'during their weeding activities
Dunlossit Estate - middle white pig
The same pig admitting to a little bit of damage associated with wallowing!!

D Probably because it was winter, the primary pig effort was contained in the gorge, where already-scenescent bracken was thrown far and wide. The bracken plateau was attacked, but only when feeding was distributed there, and the seaweed on the beach proved of greater allure. Careful searching reveals self-seeded birch and rowan in the plateau area, but whether it has enough bracken-free space to become established is not yet clear. Better containment is needed before the pigs can be returned 'at one stage they went AWOL for forty-eight hours and apparently wandered a mile or so down the coast before returning (a traumatic time, of course, but the absence of twenty-four pigs is really rather less worrying than the absence of one).

Dunlossit Estate - Unpigged area
A camera shy pig at work in a wintery brackeninfested gorge 'they enjoyed the shelter while they worked
Dunlossit Estate - coppiced compartment
The same gorge later in the winter showing pig effects

Dunlossit Estate - coppiced compartment
One of the pig team at work, far too appealing to leave out

And in the pig laboratory? A permanent state of change appears to have been achieved. There is strong evidence that the bracken is receding in favour of grass and heather; the scrub is extending beyond the gorge; a variety of plants are still present on the grassy plateaux (although I am not enough of a botanist to know if we have lost anything valuable, or are being fooled by a pleasing variety of unwelcome dominant weeds). Frankly, I am thrilled with the results and jealously proud of the pigs' achievements.

Dunlossit Estate Pigs eating seaweed
The seaweed on the beach proved to be a tempting diversion
Dunlossit Estate rowan tree regeneration
Rowan regeneration amongst once-pigged bracken on the plateau
Dunlossit Estate bracken destruction
Clear evidence of bracken destruction

Dunlossit Estate regenerating heather
Heather growing in the space created by the destruction of bracken
Dunlossit Estate Pigs eating seaweed
The fenceline shows the demarcation between pig-worked ground and sheep-grazed field

Dunlossit Estate rowan tree regeneration
….and if you couldn't make it out in the last picture, this is the difference at the end of the winter. On the left, the dead bracken is smothering the grass, harbouring tick and doing nothing constructive; on the right, the soil is waiting to burst into spring action with plants other than
Dunlossit Estate Pigs eating seaweed
Self-seeded conifer unaffected by the passing of pigs
Dunlossit Estate rowan tree regeneration
Willow flourishing with pig weeding and 'if you look carefully 'fertilising
Dunlossit Estate Pigs eating seaweed
Pig land manager patrolling an area containing quite a lot that is not bracken
Dunlossit Estate rowan tree regeneration
Mature scrub is largely undamaged; new growth is surviving; spring flowers are unaffected

The next step is to loose a substantial herd of pigs on the hill, to prove that what has happened in the pig laboratory can be replicated on a much larger scale to make a real impact on bracken infestation on open moorland. We are currently awaiting a comment from the Scottish Executive as to whether they think this is consistent with our Moorland Management Plan (it is, of course) and whether it needs an Environmental Impact Assessment.

Our conclusions to date are:

  • pigs prefer rooting amongst bracken to any other vegetation we can offer
  • the effect is long term and marked differences can be discerned up to four years later (possibly more, we don't know yet)
  • pig work is successful because it does not just kill bracken, it fundamentally changes the ecological balance of the area by:
    A pressurising an otherwise untroubled species
    B breaking through the mat left by generations of bracken
    C don't be fooled by comments about specific breeds: any pig will root for joy, as long as it is not fed to the point where it is too fat to move (a common and foolish error)

    The pig tool is powerful, but 'like all craftsmen's tools 'it requires careful handling. You need to be skilled and sensible in the use of pigs, although the skill is not difficult to acquire (every cottager had a pig at one time) and the sense requires a relatively short period of thoughtful reflection.

    Time to meet the work force! the following pictures give an overview of the different breeds that live and work on the Dunlossit Estate.

    Middle White Pig
    Middle White Pig - a 'middle' size pig which is extremely popular in Japan. It is a pinkish, white colour (unless it's been in the mud) and has a squashed nose with pricked up large ears. Her name is Madame Roger or Curly
    Tamworth Pig
    Tamworth - more native to Scotland - red/ginger in colour with coarse hair and short ears

    Gloucester Old Spots Pig
    Gloucester Old Spots - Large white pig with black spots
    Large Black
    Matilda and Robert. Large Black - Large black pig with large drooping ears that cover the eyes
    Berkshire Pig
    Berkshire - Smaller black pig, usually with white 'socks' and a flash of white over its face. The one in the picture is called crosspatch
    Lop Eared Pig
    Dolly the Lop Eared Pig - A large white pig with ears similar to the large black

    Saddleback Pig
    Saddleback - Smaller black pig with white/pink stripe round its middle

    Further relevant information and links:

  • Dunlossit Estate Website - The official website for the Estate which is a good source of information about their projects and other relevant matters.
  • Grazing Animals Project - A wide range of information on conservation grazing in the UK
  • British Pig Association - This association is the official breed society and maintains the Herd Books for several pig breeds
  • Rare Breeds Survival Trust - The RBST is the leading conservation charity working to restore Britain's native livestock breeds to their rightful place in our countryside.
  • Islay Wildscapes - The middle white pig picture is courtesy of Teresa Morris.

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