Bracken tends to get a pretty bad press, and with good reason.
However, bracken can make a positive contribution to a habitat, garden or farm system. On our holding we have come to value rather then fear our stands of bracken.
Bracken as part of Britain’s Ecology
It is, however, an aggressive pioneer. Bracken can become dominant, especially on dry, slightly acid soils, to the detriment of other plant species and the fauna that rely on them.
Changes in land management over time, including removal of woodland cover, selective grazing by sheep and burning all have contributed to the increasing dominance of bracken.
Historically, bracken was gathered for many uses, from fuel to thatching, which probably helped keep it under control. Gathering of bracken is still a commoners right in some areas eg in Ashdown Forest
Bracken on our holding
The land of Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust is free draining and (for West Wales) fairly dry. The plant species present indicate that the soil tends towards acidic. Perfect bracken habitat!
There is a reservoir of bracken in the hedges and field margins that is forever trying to creep out further into the fields.
We are faced with the annual task of managing this encroachment to prevent some fields disappearing entirely under a tide (tsunami?) of bracken. This is particularly an issue in the hay meadows, where thick bracken cover out competes the meadow flora.
Clavaria Fragilis (White Spindle) found hiding under a stand of bracken
The Problem is the Solution
The above is a much used Permaculture cliche. Given that, it is very satisfying when a problem can be neatly turned into a solution.
Cutting and pulling bracken just to keep it at bay can quickly feel overwhelming. Cutting it as a harvest is much more satisfying
So what makes this nuisance weed a valuable part of our farm system?
Bracken as mulch
Bracken makes an excellent mulch and can be applied directly to garden beds without any prior composting. Every autumn Phil puts a fair proportion of our annual vegetable garden “to bed” under a thick layer of bracken.
A wet west wales garden sleeping under a blanket of bracken.
Mulch helps reduce fertility loss that can occur if bare soil is left exposed over winter. The slowly composting mulch builds soil organic matter and suppresses weeds.
Spring bed preparation is much easier, reducing the workload in the busy spring planting period. Any weeds that have managed to establish are easily pulled out of the friable mulch / soil surface.
Plants raised in modules can be planted directly through the remaining mulch; or it can be pushed aside to allow for the establishment of smaller plants or sowing of seeds.
As we have a plentiful bracken source we often mulch right over the paths between the beds too, helping suppress weeds in this often problematic area.
Bracken as bedding.
In 2015 we added a micro herd of Shetland Cows to our smallholding. The addition of cattle has aided the management of the holding in many ways, including bracken. Trampling by cattle in the spring and summer weakens the bracken and helps slow further encroachments.
We house our cattle over winter, for the protection of the fields rather then for the protection of the cattle! We aim to run our holding as a closed system, utilizing resources we find on the farm rather then importing materials.
Here we find another use for our plentiful supply of bracken. It makes excellent animal bedding, being long lasting and absorbent. In the muck heap it breaks quickly down to make good quality manure for the garden.
Shetland cows bedded down with bracken
Home-harvested bracken is much cheaper and greener then brought in straw. West wales now has little arable farming so most straw is trucked in from other areas. Even compressed into bales, straw is a very bulky commodity, making long distance transport costly and inefficient. And of course we know our bracken is free of herbicides and pesticides.
Additionally, the cattle don’t eat it. Shetland cattle are very thrifty animals and I’m sure that they would tuck into straw bedding with gusto, making it harder to manage their diet and maintain a clean bed for them.
Bracken and cow manure muck heap. After composting for a year it makes an excellent garden manure
How we manage our bracken
Our aim is, in general, to keep the bracken cover we have at it’s current level. Management is therefore aimed at preventing further encroachments and gathering a useful harvest. We have found that annual cutting and animal trampling prevents the areas of bracken from spreading.
Cutting and removing bracken prevents it from creating a thick self-mulch on the ground over winter. This allows grasses to establish in between the plants and exposes the bracken roots to a greater risk of frost damage. The increased competition and exposure leads to the bracken stands becoming less dense over time.
A wheelbarrow of bracken. A rope / bungee combination over the top makes the load more stable
Cutting with a Scythe
We start cutting and gathering once the main hay harvest is over, late September onward. We cut using a scythe.
A 65cm Styria blade works well. The edge is sturdy enough that it is not damaged by the tough stalks. In less dense areas Phil will mow with a long blade such as a Falci Dragon, as this allows him to progress faster.
Bracken is relatively easy to mow as the stiff, upright stalks do not easily bend away from the blade.
The plants are tall so the cut stems can be quite heavy to carry across to the left of the stroke. To limit the weight of material I need to move across I tend to mow a reasonably narrow swath .
The bracken is either used directly on the garden or stacked for use as mulch or animal bedding later in the winter. Transport is via highly stacked wheelbarrow!
Mowing and gathering can carry on right through the winter. The plants are amazingly persistent and even once they have died back they stay in a fit state to be used. I am taking the scythe out most days to gather a couple of armfuls to bed down the cows.
Collapsed and tangled bracken, but still worth harvesting
Mowing late in the season is a bit trickier as the plants have fallen over. It is necessary to “sneak” the point of the blade under the lain stalks at the start of the stroke, otherwise it runs right over them without cutting.
The tops are more tangled so the cut material does not carry so neatly to the left of the stoke. Tipping the blade at the end of the stroke can help move them off the blade. Every so often it is necessary to stop mowing and use the blade to hook up the cut material that has got left behind and drag it across to the windrow.
The techniques I use are hard to describe in words – have a look at the video below.
Isn’t it poisonous?
Yes, bracken is poisonous to livestock and humans if ingested, due to the presence of a chemical called Ptaquiloside in leaves and spores.
I still think that, as long as it is handled with care, it is a useful harvest. Most grazers only eat bracken if other food sources are in short supply so leaving areas of it on a farm is not a great risk to well fed livestock.
As bracken spores are potentially carcinogenic, the RHS advises avoiding harvesting bracken in late summer, especially in dry weather, when spores are most likely to be present. Only young bracken plants spore, and then only at intervals of about ten years, further reducing the risk of ingesting the spores.
Sporing seems to be linked to long, hot, dry summers so climate chaos may increase the incidence of sporing. This article contains pictures of sporing fronds so you know what to look out for.
Spikes left behind after mowing. Don’t mow bracken in bare feet
The stems have sharp edges that can cut your hands, so I usually wear gloves when handling it. Mowing bracken leaves a succession of hard points that can inflict nasty cuts on bare feet. This is definitely a shoes-on mowing job!
No Bracken? No Problem
If you haven’t got a bracken “problem” there may be other sources of mulch, compost material and animal bedding available to you.
Soft rush (Juncus Effusus) was widely used as animal bedding in Wales. In my experience it is not as good as bracken, as it is not as absorbent and is slower to compost.
It is a free and plentiful resource in many areas and is being seriously considered again. This article suggests that it’s bedding qualities are improved by leaving it to weather for 3 weeks before baleing.
Simon Fairlie highlighted the practice of “litter meadows” in an article for the Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland.
Late summer hay harvests, of the sort often practiced on conservation meadows, produce a large bulk of relatively low quality hay. These late harvests can be deliberately made to produce animal bedding. The same material can be used as mulch.
Many people worry about the weed burden in hay mulches. We don’t find it too much of a problem. Weeds are easily pulled out of a loose mulch and there is always the option of smothering them by sticking a bit more on top.