If you are out and about in the Lake District at any time of the year, you cannot fail to notice one of the area’s most common plants: bracken. In spring the bright green immature fronds, known as fiddleheads, curl up from under the earth and start to grow. In summer the large pale green fronds are borne on tall stems which can grow to over two metres in height. In autumn the fronds die off leaving great swathes of russet brown glowing in the sunlight.
Bracken prefers acid, well drained soil so is often found growing on the sides of hills. Its root system is easily damaged by frost so it is restricted to lower altitudes, generally below six hundred metres. It often grows at the foot of a slope where soil and nutrients have been washed down and accumulated.
Changes in farming methods have led to an increase in bracken in the Lake District: as the number of sheep on the fells has decreased the bracken has spread. Whilst it can look beautiful in autumn the spread of bracken is generally not popular with the local population. Its very vigorous growth excludes most other plants such as bilberry and heather that might otherwise be growing there. It is an ideal habitat for sheep ticks which are more than happy to latch on to a human or ovine host and potentially pass on Lyme’s Disease. The tall mature fronds make it very difficult to walk across the fells whether for pleasure or to gather sheep and it can extend its area by as much as 3% per year which can cause major problems for land owners and managers.
Despite its general unpopularity bracken is an amazing plant. It is one of the oldest ferns on earth, with fossil records dating back to over 55 million years ago. It grows on every continent on Earth, apart from Antartica. Although it can exclude other plants there are lots of invertebrates, including a number of moths and caterpillars, and animals that feed on bracken or use it as cover. Ground nesting species of moorland birds, such as skylarks and lapwings use deeper stands of bracken as food sites and skylarks often nest in bracken and use it for cover. Many cultures throughout the world have used the fiddleheads as a foodstuff and there are still places, such as Korea and Japan, where they are eaten today. (However the British Royal Horticultural Society recommends against consumption of bracken because it contains carcinogens linked with oesophageal and stomach cancer. )
Throughout England bracken was seen as a valuable commodity in the past: it was harvested from the land and used as bedding for livestock, as a mulch for root crops such as swedes or turnips, for thatching roofs, as fuel for ovens and as a packing material for fragile goods or fruit. It could also be burnt to create potash for making soap and glass.
For many years bracken has been ignored or cursed but Dalefoot Farm, a small, traditional hill farm near Ullswater have started to harvest it again. They take the bracken and mix it with another once prized and now difficult to sell commodity: sheepswool. The potash content of the bracken and the water retention qualities and slow release nitrogen in the sheepswool combine to make the perfect peat-free garden compost.
So next time you are walking in the Lake District fells and are having to fight through a large stand of bracken, take a moment to appreciate this tenacious plant but do watch out for ticks.