Conservation grazing - What is it and why do we do it?

Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Ever wondered what conservation grazing is? Reserves Officer Fran talks us through why it is an important traditional management tool and how we us it at Rutland Water Nature Reserve.

Conservation grazing is one of those phrases people mention a lot in conservation……but what does it actually mean?  Well, it’s pretty straight forward, it is the use of livestock where the primary objective is to manage the site for wildlife, whether it be grassland, woodland, wetland or scrub.

There are different types of livestock available for conservation grazing, depending on the type of habitat and the aims of the management. The most common species are sheep, cattle, ponies and goats. Sheep are very selective grazers. With their small, dexterous mouths they can select out any tasty broad leaved species, which can be a useful tool when targeting unwanted species in a grassland such as ragwort, dock or nettle.  Sheep nibble at vegetation low to the ground to create a short, generally uniform, sward (area of grass), whereas cattle with their large mouths use their tongues to twist around longer vegetation and pull, which can help to open up the sward.  Their large mouths also mean they are non-selective grazers and will just munch away as they move through the grassland, often leaving areas of longer, coarse grasses to create a more diverse structure.

Goats, as many of us know, will eat anything!  They can get much of their nutritional needs from scrub so can be a useful tool when trying to reduce woody species within a grassland or scrub habitat, however sites grazed by goats are at risk from overgrazing. Goats are also escape artists, if they want to get out, there isn’t a lot that will stop them!

Ponies and horses graze close to the ground, but will also create latrines (toilet sites!) that they will not graze creating structural diversity within a grassland and as they are not ruminants (like sheep and cattle) they are constantly grazing. 

Cattle at Charnwood Lodge

Cattle at Charnwood Lodge - LRWT

Does it matter which breed of sheep or cattle is used?

The short answer to this question is generally no, the different cow breeds graze like cows and the different sheep breeds graze like sheep, but there are other factors to consider than just the way they eat the vegetation. 

Many of the rare/native breeds of cattle, sheep or ponies are hardy and sturdy, they can cope with harsh conditions, steep slopes and their bodies tolerate winter weight loss as a natural process due to low quality grassland in terms of nutritional value, which many grasslands that are good for wildlife are. Many commercial breeds will not make money for a food producing farmer if their body weight is not maintained through the winter months with large amounts of supplementary feeding.  If there is a breeding programme as part of a conservation grazing herd or flock, many of the rare, native breeds are excellent mothers and tend to need little to no intervention during birthing or the early days of motherhood, they just work it out and get it right!  Native and rare breeds tend to have fewer health issues than bigger, commercial breeds which, when managing vegetation is the priority, low maintenance livestock is a big plus point. 

Dexter cattle are a small, Irish breed of cow. They have big feet but are small in size, which means they poach the ground a lot less than the larger breeds, an important consideration for a wetland reserve. Like most of the native breeds they are tough and hardy and therefore very happy to live out all year round on rough grasslands and in all weather. The Hebridean sheep are hardy but also very happy to browse on woody vegetation such as encroaching blackthorn, hawthorn and silver birch, all species that we want to prevent from creeping into wildflower meadows and other species rich grasslands. Hebrideans also rarely have foot issues and have a lower risk of flystrike through the summer months making them a lower maintenance breed than commercial sheep.

At Rutland Water Nature Reserve we use Hebridean sheep and Dexter cattle, each with different objectives.

Hebridean sheep

Hebridean sheep - Amy Lewis

Livestock as a grazing tool

Rutland Water Nature Reserve is an internationally important site for wintering wildfowl. One duck species that we get in particular is the wigeon. Along with aquatic plants, wigeon also feed on short grass. We try to achieve ‘wigeon lawns’ for them to feed on during the winter months (from November through to March). The best tool to create these ‘lawns’ are sheep! So through the Autumn months and into the winter many of the Rutland Water flock of sheep are on grasslands to manage this important winter habitat.

Sheep are also vital for the management of traditional wildflower, hay meadows. These meadows are cut for hay late in the season (normally after July 14th), by this time the grasses and wildflowers have gone to seed. The hay cut is of course, primarily for fodder for livestock through the winter months but this also removes nutrients from the grassland, providing better conditions for softer, less vigorous grasses and wildflowers. Once the hay has been cut, dried, turned and baled it is removed from the field. Cattle can then be used for a short time to open up the sward but once an Autumn flush of grass comes through sheep are used to graze the grass down to a short sward height, ready for the early flowering species in the spring. The sheep are removed from the hay meadow at the end of November and the gates shut for winter to avoid any damage to the ground.

Wigeon

Wigeon - Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

The cattle at Rutland Water are mainly used to graze the wet grassland through the summer months. Cattle will happily graze long, rank grasslands to create bare patches, open areas and long tussocks. This mosaic of grassland on our wet meadow provides open ground for adult wading birds and chicks to feed in, whilst the tussocks provide shelter and protection from the weather and predators.

During late summer and into the Autumn these same grazing habits see the cattle ideal for grazing hay meadows that are not accessible with machinery to take a hay cut. They will pull at the long vegetation opening up the sward, enabling wildflowers to set down their seed. Cattle are also potentially a useful tool for spring grazing if a grassland has an excess of fibrous, invasive less desirable grass species such as tor grass. The non-selective grazing nature of cattle, means they will not seek out the broad-leaved species as sheep will, but instead will munch away at the grass species.

Cattle at Rutland Water

Cattle at Rutland Water - LRWT