Page last updated at 09:44 GMT, Sunday, 11 October 2009 10:44 UK

Sheep aid battle against bracken

Soay sheep near Derwent Reservoir
Unlike other breeds, Soay sheep are not poisoned by bracken

A flock of sheep has been drafted in to halt the spread of bracken at a country park on the Northumberland and County Durham border.

The vegetation has been taking over the slopes above Derwent Reservoir, putting native plants at risk.

The plant is poisonous to local breeds of sheep and cattle, so Soay sheep have been brought to the area.

The sheep, descendents of a feral population on the Scottish island of Soay, eat the base of the plant.

The Pow Hill Country Park, in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), is home to rare plants such as bog asphodel, lesser skullcap, and marsh violets, the food of small pearl-bordered fritillary caterpillars.

Reduce dominance

These are being choked by the spread of bracken, and normal methods of controlling it - such as a chemical application or trampling by cattle - have been ruled out on water quality and safety grounds.

Andy Lees, from the AONB said: "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."

The animals are being provided by Flexigraze, a conservation grazing project.

Stephen Comber of Flexigraze said: "'These Soay sheep are part of a non-breeding flock used for conservation grazing and thrive on areas of land where other breeds would struggle.

"They will be here for a few months each year and in combination with other methods of control will reduce the bracken dominance of the site."

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