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How grazing cattle help maintain Yorkshire's nature reserves

PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 February 2019

Highland cattle feeding on common reed

Highland cattle feeding on common reed

Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

David Craven from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reveals why grazing is one of the best ways to keep nature reserves healthy and full of wildlife

Cattle at Carr LodgeCattle at Carr Lodge

It can be a surprise to visitors when they arrive on a nature reserve and find domestic animals like cows, sheep and ponies grazing there. But these animals play a valuable role in helping manage wild spaces to benefit our native wildlife. In fact, grazing nature reserves is one of the best ways to maintain features like grasslands, fen, mires and saltmarsh.

Thousands of years ago, Britain had many native grazers, including wild horses, deer and the imposing aurochs – the forerunners of modern cattle. Their feeding activity prevented the open spaces from being taken over by woodland and allowed native wildflowers to thrive, which was of great benefit to insects. In turn, many of these invertebrates supported bats, birds and other small mammals. The pattern of this grazing, and the trampling of ground, created the variable sward that ground-nesting birds needed to breed successfully – making these grazers a crucial part of the landscape.

When the aurochs went extinct and wild horses and deer were removed, however, this function was lost. Much of their work can be replicated through manual management of course, but grazing is more natural, less intensive and less expensive. So Yorkshire Wildlife Trust uses various animals on different nature reserves to achieve natural habitat. Species feed in different ways, but all provide benefits for wildlife.

The cattle tend to be breeds that are comfortable on rough ground, such as highlands, shorthorns and belted Galloway,. They can be seen on the Trust’s farms including Stirley Community Farm, as well as reserves like North Cave Wetlands, Potteric Carr and Brockadale.

A volunteer helping with the poniesA volunteer helping with the ponies

Cattle graze by using their long tongues to rip vegetation from the ground, leaving the grass rough and of varying height. Because they are heavier animals, their movement breaks up the ground and creates bare earth patches that enable wildflowers to seed and germinate. They can also trample through scrub, opening up ground that might otherwise become overgrown.

Cattle dung has a benefit too; it distributes nutrients around an area and provides a home to many insects. In fact, studies have shown there can be more than 200 species living in a single cowpat.

Sheep are often used when shorter grass is needed, as they bite near to the ground. This is particularly valuable in pasture on limestone and chalk, such as at Ledsham Bank and Hetchell Wood nature reserves, where tall grasses often compete with the more delicate wildflowers. Sheep grazing can also be useful in places like the lowland wet grassland at Carr Lodge, where we want some areas of short grass for ground-nesting and feeding birds like redshanks and lapwings in the springtime. Sheep may be preferable in some instances because they are smaller, lighter and require less access to water than cattle. The Trust keeps pedigree Hebridean sheep, as well as Hebridean-Charollais crossbreeds to help manage some of our nature reserves.

Ponies graze even closer to the ground than sheep, but they are far more selective about what they eat. This means they create a mosaic of wildflowers as they tend to prefer grasses, which is fantastic on sites where we are looking for a rich diversity of insects. Ponies are also very hardy and can happily stay outside through harsh winters, whereas cattle and sheep might need moving into shelter.

David CravenDavid Craven

In addition to the huge benefit to wildlife, this work allows the Trust to demonstrate the value of conservation grazing on their farms. They aim to use the right breed, in the right place, at the right time, using their own stock, as well as working with graziers and organisations that specialise in certain rare breeds.

So when you visit a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve and see these animals, think of them as part of the team – helping to create a Yorkshire rich in wildlife for you, and for everyone.

David Craven is Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s East Regional Manager.

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