Livestock grazing is essential for the management of many of England’s most important wildlife habitats. Meadows, heathland, wood pasture, floodplain and coastal marshes all require some grazing to maintain the structure and composition upon which a variety of plants and animals depend for their survival.
Farming has played a significant role in shaping these habitats and the continuation of traditional farming practices is often crucial for their survival. However, farming has changed dramatically over recent decades, in response to both political and market forces, and this has often had negative consequences for nature conservation. Commercial livestock farming can lead to over-grazing of grasslands or abandonment of less productive semi-natural habitats.
This is where conservation grazing fits-in by providing livestock to help maintain pastoral habitats for their wildlife interest - placing greater emphasis on biological rather than commercial outcomes.
Grazing animals eat selectively and often choose more dominant plant species, which allows less competitive plants to thrive. Wildflowers encourage insects, which are in turn eaten by birds and mammals. As they graze across the landscape, the cattle decide for themselves where to concentrate their efforts thereby creating a mosaic of different sward lengths and micro-habitats.
Lying and rolling also helps increase structural diversity. This can be important for ground-nesting birds like lapwing and snipe that need a variety of sward heights to successfully rear their young.
Trampling creates areas of bare ground, producing nurseries for seedlings that might not otherwise survive and providing basking and hunting opportunities for warmth-loving invertebrates and reptiles.
Dung generates an ecosystem in its own right. By minimising the use of chemicals to control internal parasites a whole host of wildlife will colonise a cowpat - more than 250 species of insect can be found in or on cattle dung in the UK and these in turn provide food for birds, badgers, foxes and bats.
We are committed to monitoring the affect of our grazing on the natural environment. In addition to habitat condition monitoring we are conducting trials to: understand the effects of differing worming treatments on dung fauna; test the efficacy of various fly controls measures; measure the impact of trampling upon bracken - through the use of fixed-point photography; and quantify the impact of browsing by goats on bramble - using time-lapse photography.