Ground work

If you have visited a BBOWT nature reserve and glimpsed a hairy or woolly beast cropping the ground, you have met an important member of the conservation team – a wildlife grazer. Wildlife News explains…

Jacob sheep at Warburg nature reserve
(Giles Alder)


Wildlife news


or hundreds of years wildlife flourished alongside farming and our landscape was a rich tapestry of diverse habitats within a working countryside. Since the Second World War this drastically changed with the intensification of farming. On BBOWT nature reserves we are trying to continue to manage the land in a very traditional, low impact and sustainable way through grazing. Each year we undertake a carefully controlled grazing programme using cattle, ponies and sheep to help restore and maintain the rich variety of wildlife on our nature reserves. On our grasslands, heaths and fens they are doing a great job of keeping the sites open and in good condition for the benefit of a host of species, some of them nationally scarce or locally rare which would otherwise be lost.

Meet the team…
The Trust’s grazing animals are all hardy or ‘primitive’ breeds from yesteryear, bred from the uplands and moorlands of Great Britain. They are more able to cope with rougher grazing, which is what we need them to do. They are smaller, more able to eat tougher grasses and they’re not as fussy as commercial breeds that will fatten on lusher grass. Each type of animal has its own distinct grazing style that enables certain habitats and wildlife to thrive…

January 2011


Ground work

Beulah lambs

Hebridean sheep
(Peter Roworth)

Dexter cows
(Gavin Hageman)

The sheep: Jacob, Beulah, Shetland, Hebridean and Wiltshire Horn
These hardier breeds are less prone to problems with their feet, and more able to cope with harsher conditions, for we expect them to be out in all weathers. Their job: Sheep nibble close to the ground producing a lawn effect, particularly useful on our chalk grassland nature reserves including Hartslock in Oxon and Dancersend in Bucks. This enables smaller flowering plants and the butterflies that feed on them to thrive, such as horseshoe vetch and the chalkhill blue. Wild thyme, milkwort, pyramidal orchid, as well as the aptly named sheep’s fescue, together with countless insects also benefit from the attention of our woolly workers.

Their job: Rather than nipping with their teeth, of grass and this creates a more varied mix of ve mammals and birds depend on these insect-ric birds such as lapwing or snipe also need this ty Since cattle are heavier than sheep or ponies, th creating the right conditions for annual plants t Late summer grazing with cattle has had a posi grassy pastures including the extension at Moo Leaches Farm on the Upper Ray Meadows in B

The cattle: Dexter and British Whites

A combined effort
Quite often the Trust will use livestock in combination. On taller grasses and newly acquired sites that have suffered from neglect cattle will be brought in first, followed by sheep for a finer finish, depending on what we want to achieve. Not only ponies are used to graze our fens; since they are small, Dexter cattle will also be used. As well our as own livestock, BBOWT works with local graziers who will use their livestock on larger or more difficult-toreach sites that need larger numbers of animals for prolonged periods. This happens at Iffley Meadows in Oxford and Moor Copse in Berkshire, among other places. The timing and intensity of grazing are crucial and the programme involves our reserves teams, ecologists and many volunteers. To achieve the right balance, the conservation team produces a programme of what they want to achieve in the year, working from site records that show where grazing has taken place and for how long. Our ecologists will then assess wildlife surveys that are carried out each year to find out if we are doing the right thing: if we need to graze more or less, have we got the timing right? If sites

are overgrazed then species might be lost and habitats damaged. We also need to factor in seasonal variations. For instance, grazing had to be postponed for a year at the low-lying Chimney Meadows because of the floods in 2007.

gentian. Gradually we would lose our important mix of habitats and a great deal of the wildlife that depends upon them.

Running costs
Looking after our livestock is a full-time occupation involving many people. Fencing and stock pens have to be erected. Livestock have to be transported from site to site, and when they are not grazing, they are moved to land known as ‘lay back’: Wells Farm in Oxon and Woolley Firs in Berks. The welfare of the animals is constantly monitored and health checks undertaken. BBOWT’s Grazing Officer, Louise King, explains, “We do have some yearly treatments that we apply, for instance the Bluetongue vaccine for the cattle and sheep. Fly treatment is also really important. All stock have their feet trimmed – it’s a time-consuming job but it’s very important that they are able to do their job efficiently and that they are comfortable. The idea is to keep them healthy so we shouldn’t have to treat a great deal. Part of this ethos is that we try to buy in younger animals. If we buy a one-year-old heifer we then have it for the next eight to nine years. It makes our management a lot easier.”

If grazing stopped
The landscape may look alright through your car window as you drive through the countryside but the variety of wildlife and the important mix of habitats have been lost at a dramatic rate, partly because of the loss of less efficient small-scale farming. Grazing of flower-rich pastures and grassland is a traditional method of managing the land in harmony with wildlife. This is why BBOWT’s grazing programme and our work with farmers and other landowners across our Living Landscape project areas is so important. If we stopped grazing on BBOWT nature reserves the effect would be drastic. In the Chilterns within two or three years you would see a marked increase in upright brome and other coarse grasses. Brambles would begin to take over with hawthorn setting seed and growing up. Dogwood and wayfaring tree would also crowd out grassland species including orchids, flowering herbs and Chiltern


Wildlife news

British White cattle
(Giles Strother)

Exmoor ponies
(Rob Appleby)

New Forest pony
(Gavin Hageman)

, cattle use their tongues to tear out mouthfuls egetation, great for insects and spiders. Many ch habitats for foraging. Ground-nesting wading pe of grazing to fledge their young successfully. hey create muddier patches with their hooves to set seed and germinate the following spring. tive effect on many of BBOWT’s meadows and or Copse, Inkpen Common in Berkshire and Bucks.

The ponies: Exmoor and New Forest Their job: Ponies are also useful close-croppers but they are also very effective at tackling coarser grasses, especially false brome, which sheep don’t like. They are great at nipping back brambles and scrubbier plants as well as other rough stuff like the tips of gorse and birch trees. They are also more suited to the wetter ground of fens such as Parsonage Moor in Oxon. Summer grazing there has pushed back the encroaching reeds, sedges and rushes, creating more open water and providing ideal breeding conditions for the internationally rare southern damselfly which has suffered a 30% decline in the UK.

Our eyes and ears on the ground
Looking after the livestock would not be possible if it were not for our dependable band of volunteer stock watchers who check all is well on a regular basis. Our volunteers are trained in what to look for and are given information to back that up – the health signs of a cow, horse, sheep. Our volunteers are not responsible for looking after the livestock, they are our eyes and ears on the ground while the animals are grazing a particular site, and this can be for six weeks to two months per year. There will always be a member of Trust to contact in case an animal needs tending.
Without conservation grazing many species would be lost from our landscape, including the common blue (RedWhoopee/Flickr) and Chiltern gentian (Peter Creed).

How you can get involved…

This summer we need stock watchers at Lashford Lane Fen and Parsonage Moor to keep an eye on our Dexter cattle that will be helping to restore this unusual and nationally rare habitat. If you live nearby or would like to volunteer as a BBOWT stock watcher on any of our nature reserves please go to the volunteer pages at or call Louise King on 01491 642001.

January 2011


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