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SHEEP which hail from the islands off the west coast of Scotland have been drafted in to help rare plants thrive in the North East.

Fen and heath habitats above Derwent Reservoir at Pow Hill Country Park on the Northumberland and County Durham border have, over the years, been disappearing under a sea of bracken. Swaledale sheep which are native to the hills and farms of the North Pennines steer clear of bracken.

But the small flock of Soays that has been drafted in like to feed on the bracken's stalks.

Soays are descended from a population of feral sheep which live on Soay, in the Scottish Western Isles. Andy Lees, the North Pennines AONB Partnership''s conservation officer, said: Fen and heath habitats such as the slopes above the Derwent Reservoir support rare plants such as bog asphodel and lesser skullcap, as well as the food plants of some rare butterflies.

As well as being important habitats in their own right they have also, in the past supported rare species of butterfly such as the green hairstreak and small pearl-bordered fritillary."

The partnership''s Living North Pennines project is funding work on Northumbrian Water''s land to restore some of these slopes to their former state by removing some of the bracken and re-introducing grazing. Bracken is a difficult plant to control and normal methods - such as a chemical application or trampling by cattle - have been ruled out on water quality and safety grounds. "Sheep and cattle do not eat bracken as it is poisonous to them. However Soay sheep are known to chew the base of the bracken stalk for some unknown reason, and this helps keep the plants at bay," said Mr Lees.

Fencing has been erected to keep grazing animals in, and contractors started the long-term work of bracken control by undertaking the first year cut in August. The sheep are being provided by Flexigraze, the North East conservation grazing project, and will be looked after by staff from the project and from Northumbrian Water.

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HELPING OUT Soay sheep feed on the stalks of bracken.
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Article Details
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 13, 2009
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