Robot chores

04 December 2021 | Posted in Sam Roberts , Nature Reserves , Levin Down
Robot chores
Levin Down © Sam Roberts

By Sam Roberts

Communications Officer 

It was Professor Noel Sharkey of Sheffield University who, during the long-running and highly acclaimed BBC show ‘Robot Wars’ stated the contestants would be judged on “style, control, damage and aggression” – but how about conservation?

Ok, so this wasn’t a caged arena in an old foundry, in fact it was about as far from that scenario as possible – a chalk downland nature reserve in the heart of West Sussex - but the caterpillar tracks, impressive weaponry, and remote controlled nature of what confronted me was certainly reminiscent of the garden shed versions of the terminator touted by hopeful entrants to this fantastic bit of telly.

This was the latest tool in habitat management being trialled by the Trust – a robotic tractor mower, capable of cutting scrub on slopes of up to 60 degrees. As it drove off the trailer, and down the steep slopes of Levin Down, it instantly impressed the inner child and Robot Wars fan of my past – manoeuvring effortlessly over the undulations, whilst the large flail cutter at the front mowed down the tough brambles, hawthorn and blackthorn so prevalent when left to its own devices. Move over Sgt Bash, Sgt BRASH is in town!

But why employ such futuristic tools? Well, these slopes can be steep, walking up them is tough, so working to clear scrub using traditional tools or brush cutters is just unsafe, let alone cumbersome and hard on the legs. That’s where the mower comes in, not only can it handle these slopes, but it’s remote controlled so no danger to the operator unlike traditional sit-on tractors.

And why clear the scrub in the first place? Well chalk grassland is a rare habitat, comprising of more than 50 species of wildflower in one square metre – this can easily be swamped by invasive plants – so we need to manage it by cutting it back. Levin Down also has a particularly important habitat of chalk heath – where you find acid loving plants such as heather growing on a thin layer of wind-blown soil that sits on top of the chalk – this mixture of different types of plant is quite a rarity so is well-worth protecting. We still leave areas of scrub untouched for sheltering birds and insects, but too much can drown out these important and less-common species.

After a day’s mowing, you could certainly see the difference, with a large area of what was near thicket now an open area – perfect to allow the grazing cattle to come in and finish what was left, as well as get a chance to eat any new shoots that might grow back in spring. A perfect start to some grassland restoration, and a good test of the tractor’s abilities – style =10, control = 10, damage [to scrub] = 10 and aggression? Well, the friendly South Downs National Park rangers helping were anything but aggressive – sorry Professor Sharkey.

Watch the robotic tractor in action

Thanks to the South Downs National Park Authority for their loan of this equipment, and to their rangers for the help with this work.

Comments

  • Sarah Riss:

    16 Dec 2021 11:44:00

    What about habitat for Foxes and feeding birds, such as the Stonechat ?

    ANSWER: At Levin Down, there is plenty of scrub habitat, but management is required to look after the rare chalk heath and chalk grassland habitat and the specialist wildlife it supports. Scrub quickly shades out chalk grassland plants, for example.
  • Ann Griffiths:

    16 Dec 2021 14:10:00

    Excellent looking machine. What happens to the cut material please – is it hand raked and burnt on site?

    Answer: The mower does not collect anything - the flail head smashes it up really well (some of the larger bits need cutting by hand afterwards and they are then cleared away)
  • 16 Dec 2021 14:13:00

    Brilliant use of robot controlled mechanics. Impressed !

  • Darryll G Benson:

    16 Dec 2021 14:47:00

    A waste on money and time as the chap with the controls may as well be sitting on the thing not just standing driving by remote, if it did it by itself, well that would be Robotic.

    REPLY: This mower is used remotely on the steep slopes, where working to clear scrub using traditional tools or brush cutters is just unsafe & not certainly not suitable for a sit-on mower or similar
  • Martin Derham:

    16 Dec 2021 15:50:00

    Dear Santa, Please can I have one for my back garden? I wouldn’t need to leave the sun lounger and cool beer, and I could easily guide it round the meadow area as well.

  • Heather Wycherley:

    16 Dec 2021 18:01:00

    Robotic machinery can be lethal for small mammals i.e hedgehogs in summer who can just sleep in bushy areas and long grass.

    REPLY: The operator checks the ground before using the mower to look for changes to slope, stumps etc and we also check for wildlife. By mowing in the late autumn, we know that ground nesting birds and most other wildlife will be avoided.
  • Mrs Jean Fitch:

    16 Dec 2021 20:28:00

    What a fantastic tool – seems to fit the bill in every way. I will look for the results next time we are up on Levin Down.

  • 18 Dec 2021 19:23:39

    Swiss-built Abbi tractors are also good and can handle woodier growth. Surprised that the cut material is not raked and removed, leading to nutrient enrichment.

  • Ann Griffiths:

    04 Jan 2022 10:57:00

    What about ant hills ? I think this machine has a place but care needs to be taken before and after use to make sure no damage to sensitive species and clearance of the cut material and uncut remains is also undertaken – proceed with caution I would say.

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