Conservation grazing

Shetland sheep at Aldbury Nowers Nature ReserveShetland sheep grazing at Aldbury Nowers

We use traditional grazing animals to manage habitats for biodiversity.

Why graze?

Grazing animals help us to manage particular sites in the most effective and natural way possible. 

Centuries 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 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.

Grazing benefits

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 lengths of grass and micro habitats.

Lying, rolling and pushing also serve to increase the structural diversity of the grass. This is important for ground nesting birds like lapwing and snipe that need a varied grass structure to successfully rear their young.

Trampling creates 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.

Livestock grazing has a less instantaneous impact than cutting the grass, so it allows less mobile wildlife to thrive. The grazing animals can also access areas that machinery cannot.

Choosing the right beast for the job

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.

Our Living Lawnmowers need you! Earlier in the year, we ran a fundraising appeal to raise £14,160 to keep our living lawnmowers grazing our nature reserves this year. Find out how we got on.

Cattle

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. We currently have longhorn and Highland cattle, as well as redpolls [a traditional East Anglian breed] grazing our sites.

Sheep

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 cannot. We have a 'f'lying flock' of Shetland sheep that move 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.

Ponies

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. We use a traditional breed, the Konik.

Meet our team of 'living lawnmowers'

Timing it right

The timing and duration of grazing is carefully managed by our Reserves Team. 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.