A number of regular users and visitors have expressed concern about the current work to control bracken on the Forest. The control of bracken is essential to protect the plants and animals that live on our rare lowland heath and without this work we would lose this precious habitat.

Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is a native but invasive plant that without appropriate management can dominate the heathland by shading out heathers, grasses and other vegetation creating vast monocultures of tall, dense bracken. It is not generally eaten by grazing animals but if it is consumed in large quantities, it can cause bracken poisoning. It is also a habitat for ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease to humans and be harmful to small mammals and ground nesting birds.

Where bracken overwhelms our protected lowland heath, specialist heathland plants and animals are not able to survive. We work closely with Natural England to ensure that Ashdown Forest’s important heathland habitat is managed appropriately and conserved for future generations.

Heathland is an incredibly rare habitat and supports an array of species that are dependent on it for their survival, including the Nightjar and Dartford warbler. It is due to the presence of these bird species that Ashdown Forest is protected. Ensuring the habitat that supports these birds is adequately managed is therefore vitally important for the long-term protection of Ashdown Forest. The Conservators therefore must ensure that bracken does not spread and destroy the heathland habitats.

To maintain the important heathland habitat there are two ways of managing bracken: mechanical and chemical. Where possible, bracken is cut and collected mechanically using a tractor. This is our preferred method of control. Where this is not possible, chemical treatment is required.

One of the few other means of effectively controlling bracken has been to spray it with a herbicide that specifically targets the bracken, and not the other plants. The herbicide Asulam has been permitted for use to control bracken. Ashdown Forest, and many other heathland managers, have been using it alongside mechanical methods for many years to manage bracken. Asulam presents low risk to insects and other animals, but we do take extra precautions to avoid areas where dormice and ground nesting birds are known to breed.

We employ specialist contractors who are experienced in working on protected landscapes such as Ashdown Forest. They spray from knapsack sprayers directly onto the plant, this reduces the risk of wind drift, and because they are slowly moving through the area, there is less disturbance and more chance of avoiding nesting birds. Where nesting birds are seen/known, a protected zone is established.

Signs have been placed where bracken is being sprayed and they will remain in place for a week after application. Bracken absorbs the chemical very quickly and should be clear within 24 hours after application.

Ashdown Forest would like to reduce the need for chemical application and we are monitoring new research and investigating alternative methods to manage the large amount of bracken efficiently across the Forest. One potential approach may be to work with volunteers to cut back the bracken, gather it up and remove it from the heathland.

If you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact us at [email protected].


[First published 26th July 2023]