There is very little lowland semi-natural grassland left in Scotland and so it is important to protect what little is left and ensure it is in the best possible condition.

One aspect of Save Our Magnificent Meadows is to restore Mosstown Fen, a large area of fen meadow that is part of Loch of Strathbeg, the largest dune loch in Britain.  The Loch and surrounding wetlands are of international importance for their nature conservation and are managed as a nature reserve by the RSPB, who are the lead Save Our Magnificent Meadows partner in Aberdeenshire.

The story so far:

Mosstown Fen had not been actively managed since the 1950s and 60s, and had become overgrown by willow scrub and soft rush.  Although soft rush remains an important part of the fen meadow, its dominance needs to be hugely reduced; one of the aims of our Magnificent Meadows Project is to increase the number and diversity of flowering plants in the meadows, by reducing the amount of coarse grasses and rushes which will allow the more interesting small rushes, sedges and flowering plants to flourish.  

Konik ponies were introduced to graze the area and the impacts of their grazing are being carefully monitored.  The ponies themselves are thriving and our herd has expanded to 38, with seven new additions in 2017. Data from the GPS tracking collars worn by some of the ponies is being gathered, and analysis of the results to date is under way – it will still be a while before we are able to fully interpret all the information we have collated.

The height and density of rushes is also being measured in quadrats spread across the project area, to compare the different management regimes. These included mown one year and grazed, mown two years and grazed, just grazed, just mown, neither mown nor grazed, including control areas. Combining grazing with topping seems to be the most effective way to manage the rushes; the results so far are very encouraging. The final cut of the project has taken place and from here on we’re relying on grazing to maintain the sward.

We’re also using our quadcopter drone to monitor the changes through fixed point and transect photography; the information that we can get by this method is quite remarkable and is already being used to inform day-to-day management of the reserve.

The annual count of lesser butterfly orchid in 2016 revealed a tremendous total of 377 spikes, 51 of which were actually on Mosstown Marsh itself – an increase of over eight times since the project began!  In Britain, colony decline began around 1930, and there has been a loss of approximately 60% of all recorded sites since 1987. Scotland is one of its strongholds, mostly in the North and West, so our little East coast patch is quite unusual.  

It’s a lovely wee plant, with a single flowering spike that can reach up to 30 cm in height. The flowers themselves are white with a slight greenish tinge. Identification can only be reliably done while the plant is blooming – usually June and July - so our team have to be quick off the mark.  It appears in a wide variety of open, grazed or rough, damp to wet grassy sites, on both acid peat bog and heaths and on damp calcareous soils. Heavy grazing in spring/summer can prevent flowering and seed setting, whilst too little grazing, or no grazing at all, especially during early spring and autumn/early winter, can lead to the dominance of tall and dense grasses and sub-shrubs creating a sward that is unsuitable for lesser butterfly orchid, so it’s important that our four-footed grazing squad is in the right place at the right time! As part of the Magnificent Meadows project we have completed many hundreds of meters of fencing to enable us to control this. Some of the fences are standard stock fencing but some are just deep ditches filled with water that the horses do not cross.

Of course, it’s not all plain sailing – orchids have good years and bad years, and in 2017 numbers across the reserve dropped dramatically; what is heartening is that, although there were 90% fewer spikes over the rest of the reserve, Mosstown numbers only fell by 50%.

Hundreds of lapwing and curlew are using the marsh through the winter months, and snipe numbers are also improving. 2017 saw an increase in breeding snipe, with at least four pairs on the Marsh.

Our major Meadows Celebration on National Meadows Day 2016 went extremely well, with over 130 people enjoying a variety of activities and the performances of our Doric Poetry winning entries. We had over 100 entries into the competition, and the judges, Jean MacKinnon, Les Wheeler and Robbie Shepherd, were very impressed with the standard of the poems.  The winning poems in each category can be seen here. We held a further ‘Meadows Day’ event on a smaller scale in July 2017, with lots of activities and a guided walk, which was enjoyed by all who came along.

To Come:

As the formal part of the project draws to a close, we hope to extend the grazing on the marsh into adjacent areas, to continue to encourage and improve the biodiversity using the knowledge and information we’ve gathered over the three years of the project, and to carry on encouraging our visitors to appreciate the heritage of our marvellous fen meadow.

In Scotland, Magnificent Meadows is being delivered with support from Scottish Natural Heritage.