Devon cattle, Whiteleigh Meadows SSSI - Devon Wildlife Trust
We use traditional grazing animals to manage habitats for biodiversity
Grazing animals help us to manage particular sites in the most effective and natural way possible.
Hundreds of years ago, people cleared the land of trees to form open spaces for farming. Their grazing animals helped to shape many of our semi-natural habitats, which developed rich and diverse wildlife communities. Our grassland, meadows, moorland and heathland habitats were all shaped by human activity and grazing is often the most effective and sustainable way to maintain them and their huge variety of plants and animals.
Stocking densities for conservation grazing are usually low and the timing and duration of grazing is carefully managed. Both over- and under-grazing will reduce the wildlife value of a habitat, so we produce management plans for each grazed site outlining the grazing regime required to maintain or restore the habitats found there.
Livestock grazing has a less instantaneous impact than burning or cutting, so allows less-mobile wildlife to thrive. The grazing animals can also access areas that machinery can’t.
Grazing animals eat selectively and often choose the more dominant plant species, which allows less competitive plants to become established and increases species diversity. As they graze across the landscape, the animals decide for themselves where to concentrate their efforts and create a mosaic of different sward lengths and micro habitats.
Lying, rolling and pushing also serve to increase the structural diversity of the sward. This is important for ground nesting birds like lapwing and snipe that need a varied sward structure to successfully rear their young.
Trampling creates of areas of bare ground, which is beneficial in moderation. It creates nurseries for seedlings that might not otherwise survive and creates habitats and hunting grounds for open ground, warmth-loving invertebrates and reptiles.
Dung creates a whole ecosystem by itself! Conservation grazing animals are usually grazed in extensive, low pressure systems so there is little need for chemicals to control internal parasites. This means that a whole range of wildlife moves into a cowpat to set up home - more than 250 species of insect are found in or on cattle dung in the UK and these in turn provide food for birds, badgers, foxes and bats.
The choice of livestock used for conservation grazing is very important. Differences in feeding preferences, physiology and behaviour mean that different animals and breeds are needed to manage different habitats.
- Cattle use their tongues to wrap around and pull up tufts of vegetation, leaving uneven sward lengths and producing a tussocky field. They will eat longer, coarser grasses and push their way through scrub and bracken to create open spaces.
- Sheep prefer to nibble shorter grasses but will also select flower heads, which can result in a decrease in species diversity if not properly managed. Many traditional and hill breeds have a strong browsing requirement to their diet, so are good for scrub control. Their small size means they can access areas that machinery can’t.
- Ponies preferentially graze grasses and generally avoid eating flowering plants, allowing them to thrive and multiply. They will happily take plants that other animals would avoid – for example, New Forest ponies will eat large quantities of bracken in late summer, when it is less toxic.
- Heavier animals break up the ground and create bare areas for seeds to germinate. Hooves also haphazardly push seeds into the ground.
- Smaller breeds can access more difficult terrain, such as wet ground, where other breeds would cause damage or even get stuck.
We use a wide variety of grazing animals, including traditional and rare breed sheep and cattle, native ponies, red deer and even water buffalo. Some of these we own, whilst others belong to local graziers. Many Trusts have ‘flying flocks’ of animals that are moved around different reserves on rotation to allow them to graze for set periods depending on each reserve’s requirements. For example, flower-rich meadows need late summer grazing to prevent an impenetrable thatch of dead vegetation building up and hindering the following season’s new growth.
Some examples of our conservation grazing work
Cumbria Wildlife Trust is working in partnership with Newton Rigg, a local agricultural college, to run a conservation grazing project at Eycott Hill Nature Reserve. The nature reserve is grazed year round by a herd of Luing cattle, a hardy native breed that are perfectly suited to the Cumbrian uplands. Newton Rigg College are the graziers and own and manage the herd, using it as an education resource for agricultural students, who get practical experience of upland farming with native breeds. Over the five year project the herd will be managed to produce high quality beef in a low input, low output system that’s expected to be cost-effective and produce a number of beneficial environmental outcomes. The nature reserve will be used as a demonstration site to showcase the benefits of this type of upland farming and local volunteers will be recruited as livestock checkers to help monitor the herd.
Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust is working with the Ministry Of Defence and other landowners to re-introduce grazing livestock to large tracts of land in north east Hampshire. This area is home to some of the most important heathland and grassland areas in the country and much of it is protected for its internationally important bird life. Grazing is the best way to ensure that the heathland continues to support a wide variety of wildlife, including round-leaved sundews, which grow on the bare, muddy patches created by the cattle’s hooves, and the green tiger beetle, which hunts on open ground. So far 870 hectares of SSSI heathland are being grazed.
Scottish Wildlife Trust has, for the last ten years, been at the forefront of conservation grazing in Scotland. Starting with 50 sheep and growing to 300, the Trust’s flying flock has brought Trust reserves and partner sites into favourable condition, generated income through meat sales and provided advice to other landowners and organisations. A comprehensive botanical monitoring programme underpins all the grazing work, the results of which have been published in a variety of journals.
Surrey Wildlife Trust’s grazing project has seen fantastic results; scrub has been devoured and beautiful mosaics of vegetation created. Species have appeared which have not been recorded on sites before, such as the yellow hairy dung fly, plus numbers of some threatened species have increased. The best example is Surrey’s sole colony of Bog Hair Grass, which was down to just a few plants in 2005 but increased to more than 30 plants following a couple of years' grazing.
GPS tracking collars are used on the Trust’s cattle. These are carried by the lead animals and allow the Trust to monitor the herd’s use of an area to determine the patches in which they spend most of their time. These areas are then targeted for species surveys and vegetation monitoring.
Sussex Wildlife Trust also uses GPS collars to monitor grazing. The Trust runs the Friston Forest Grazing Project in partnership with the Forestry Commission, Natural England, South East Water and the South Downs Joint Committee. A small herd of British White cattle lives permanently on site and the animals are left to decide for themselves where to go and what to eat. By plotting the herd’s location data on to maps of the site, an accurate picture of where they are spending their time is built up. This is the overlaid with vegetation maps to understand how the site is evolving. Grazing and browsing by the cattle, in combination with natural processes such as wind, drought and fungal decay, is creating an intimate and shifting mosaic of habitats that are ideal for a very wide range of plants and animals.