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Its gorse, of course.
Gorse (furze or whin) is a seriously underrated plant. Its green and spiky and treated as a weed by many, burned alive by some. However, in the past it was considered a useful species, particularly by peasant farmers and smallholders. Here's some stuff about it that you may find interesting. If anyone feels inspired to trial gorse as an animal fodder, please feel free to let me know how you get on. What follows is just for starters; I'll add more as time goes on, including some of the early references.
As far as I can tell, there are three varieties to be found in Britain. However, sources differ quite widely when it comes to height, flowering and common names. Be warned.
Commonly known as western gorse, summer gorse or dwarf gorse, this is the real native, flowering from July to September or October, height to about 1 metre. As one of its common names suggests, it is found in the western areas of Britain on more acidic soils.
The European gorse was introduced some time ago (when?) specifically as fodder for livestock as it is so much larger than ulex gallii, up to 2 or even 3 metres when mature. It flowers from March to June.
ULEX MINOR [also ULEX NANNUS?]
This is another small native commonly called small or dwarf gorse, only found in the south east of England with height up to about 80cm.
Europaeus and gallii hybridize so where both occur (most western parts of Britain) expect to see a lot of variation.
CHARACTERISTICS AND USES
(This is where it gets exciting, honest).
Gorse is a legume (like beans and peas) and thus has useful associations with colonies of bacteria which occupy nodules in the root system. These are able to fix (grab) nitrogen from the atmosphere present in the soil and make it available to the gorse plant. By shocking the plant, (coppicing or mini pollarding) some of the nitrogen is released and becomes available to other plants occupying the same root space. Read on.
Gorse is particularly good at grabbing any available calcium in acid areas. It will get it from the subsoil and then, as the plant drops its spikes or even dies, makes the calcium available on the surface. It thus has the effect of making topsoil less acidic at the expense of increasing the acidity of subsoils.
Gorse drops a lot of material during its life span and mature stands are generally self mulching. This results in a rich, fibrous top soil.
On the regeneration site (Argel) here at Penrhos, many of the early pioneer trees (birch, willow) were severely trashed by the large population of feral deer (fallow deer) that roamed through Coed Y Brenin (The King's Trees, 17,000 acres of forest). However, wherever a tree came up next to (or even inside) a gorse bush, the deer tended to leave it alone, or only browse on side. This meant that even with high numbers of deer passing through the site, the regeneration was very fast. On other parts of the holding where I planted trees without gorse protection, severe damage resulted, so much so that I abandoned any large scale planting of trees until gorse could be established first.
INSECTS and BIRDS
As gorse spends much of the year flowering, a host of insects are attracted to it, including bees. This means that there's a lot of bird activity (insect eating birds) and hence phosphate cycling. Ants appear to play a significant role in the movement of gorse seeds and on Argel there's a good example of an abandoned ant heap sprouting gorse plants.
With nearly half the protein content of oats, gorse provides a valuable fodder without the ploughing and aftercare required by a grain crop. It was used as a fodder crop traditionally in many areas (notably Wales and Ireland). It was usually ground between stones to a moss like consistency for feeding to cattle. Processing for horse was much simpler and involved basic devices to snap the gorse up and there is an example of an early machine at St. Fagans. It does not seem to have been used much for sheep although they will browse it in hard winters; in fact, local lore relates the hardness of the winter to the pin pricks of blood around a sheep's mouth resulting from gorse's spines.
I don't bother with a machine and just cut the gorse down with long handled loppers. If the area is likely to be taken over by bracken I tend to pollard the gorse at about waist height, otherwise I coppice it at ground level. New growth is rapid and soft (with coppice gorse in some traditions this was scythed off after a year for sheep). I tie the branches of gorse in bundles and hang them up for horses. This is an excellent addition to their winter feed and our Welsh Cobs would always leave their hay until they had finished the gorse. It also takes some time for them to eat as they are careful due to the spines; this again is a real advantage in winter and provides them with something to do. They will peel and eat every strip of bark that they can reach
The bundle of peeled sticks (a faggot) which is what you are left with when the horses have finished with it is great firewood. Which leads on to;
It burns. If the weather is hot and dry, it burns extremely well. This should be taken into consideration if you intend to use gorse extensively in productive designs. A point worth making is that it is generally the old, unmanaged stands which burn best as they have lots of dead material hanging up in the foliage. A well managed fodder system is all green (a lovely, spiky sight!) and much less liable to burn.
Gorse hedges were maintained in Ireland and Wales; there's an old one just down the road from us and I will try to get a picture of it to put up here. More commonly it was added on the top of stone faced banks as a deterrent to livestock. It can be trimmed fairly easily with shears and sculpted to any profile or shape. Gorse topiary? Now there's a thought.
In an ungrazed or minimally grazed situation (ie. no domestic stock), gorse grows in close proximity with many other plant species, notably bracken, wild raspberry and blackberry (check out the species list for Argel for more details; if you go there, you'll need to use the back button on your browser to get back here). Bracken accumulates potash (potassium) and the soft fruits mean more birds and thus more phosphate cycling. So that's nitrogen, potassium and phosphates being provided and cycled largely as a result of the gorse.
GORSE AS TREE NURSE
From the above it should be fairly clear that gorse has a significant role to play in the establishment of forest. It does important work preparing the soil, lowering acidity, increasing available nitrogen and encouraging phosphate cycling. It also provides a physical protection from browsing animals and wind. In a semi natural regeneration situation it forms dense stands through and around which trees flourish. It peaks after about 12 years at up to 2.5 metres tall. The stand breaks open, often as a result of snow falls, and the trees shade it out. It thus has a temporary footprint in the establishment of forest.
It has great potential in coppice woodlands and productive shelter belts as it can be easily pollarded or coppiced itself, releasing nitrogen to feed surrounding species. The coppicing greatly increases its lifespan and as the cut material is an excellent animal fodder it can form part of livestock systems. I'll put up some simple designs developed with David Holmgren shortly.
Some books describe gorse as being difficult to transplant, hence it is generally started off in pots rather than in seed beds. However, both Phil Corbett and myself have found that transplanting is possible with care. I've occasionally dug up a mature plant, after first cutting it right back down to the ground, then replanted it in a gorse free area. The plant recovers quickly and can be used as a mother plant, seeding into the new area. To increase the chances of the seed getting going, I have laid out bits of carpet and cardboard around the plant early on in the year. This suppresses vegetation and can be removed in the summer as the pods ripen. This means there's a good chance of seed landing on bare soil.
Phil also found that germination rates of seed were improved by immersing the seed in boiling water for ten minutes. This tends to confirm the idea that gorse is closely linked to fire. Farmers tend to burn off patches of gorse in the early spring with the intention of getting a bit of young grass instead but this just burns off some of the nutrients in the gorse mulch, reduces available nitrogen and thus gives gorse the advantage over grasses. If fire increases the germination rate that would also explain why the gorse returns so quickly after the burning.
I have tried applying fire as a technique to establish gorse by cutting seeding gorse plants, piling the material where I wanted it to grow and then setting fire to it. I could distinctly hear the gorse pods exploding in the flames. However, I don't think I cut enough material as the seed shot off into the surrounding grasses and the fire didn't really knock them back enough. Watch this space or tell me if you've done it different.
I tend to scatter seed on moist tissue paper in a seed tray then pick them out when they germinate and pot them up into individual pots. There are also a number of references in the literature to broadcasting seed on rough ground.
Both myself and Martin Garnett have had success with gorse cuttings although the survival rate is not high. We used younger sticks of around pencil to finger thickness, about 15-20cm in length. As with any cuttings, they need to be firmed into moist soil and not allowed to dry out.
The Isle of Man government have some interesting things to say about gorse; the Manx greatly valued both the low-growing native gorse (ulex gallii) and the taller imported ulex europaeus. To make traditional sod hedges more stockproof, imported gorse seeds were pushed a hand-span apart into suggane (Manx Gaelic for straw rope). This was pegged down along the hedge-top. I've not yet tried this but it sounds like an excellent technique. I would think that any organic rope, such as hemp, would work well.
REFERENCES ON GORSE OR FURZE
COX, Barrie. Furze, Gorse and Whin: an Aside on Rutland in the Danelaw. Journal of the English Place-Name Society 20 (1987-8), 3-9.
BUCKMAN, J. On clover allies as fodder plants. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. 2nd sers., vol.4, 1868, p.290-300, esp. p.299-300.
BURKE, John Francis. British husbandry, vol.I, p.134-5 (1854).
DARBY, J. On green and fodder crops not commonly grown which have been found serviceable for stock feeding. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. 2nd sers., vol.18, 1882, p.114-153, esp p.146-7.
DAVIES, Sir L. T. & EDWARDS. A. Welsh life in the eighteenth century, p.16 (1939).
ELLY, S. On the cultivation of gorse as food for cattle. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. 1st sers., vol.6, 1845, p. 523-8.
GRIFFITH, John Jones, Gorse as food for farm animals. 1878- ?
LOUDON, J.C. An encyclopaedia of agriculture. 2nd ed., p.382 (1831).
LUCAS, A.T. Furze: a survey and history of its uses in Ireland. Pub. For National Museum of Ireland by The Stationery Office, Dublin, I960.
MORTON, J.C. ed. Cyclopedia of agriculture: practical and scientific, vol.1 P.992-4, (1855).
ROBERTS, O.O. An essay on gorse. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. 1st sers., vol.6, 1845, p.379-97.
WILSON, J.M. ed. The rural cyclopedia, vol.2, p.385-8, (1851).
See also show reports in J.R.A.S.E:
and correspondence in Country Life:
and The Field:
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