chrisbrooks's picture

Grazing of nature reserves

What are the benefits of the policy of grazing nature reserves with livestock ?

I understand that this is an age old practise but I have some concerns.

I visit several nature reserves where cattle are present. I have found them to be quite destructive. The ground and in particular the wet areas take a real pounding and where once Ragged Robin, Water Mint and Orchids grew there is just cropped vegetation and Marsh Thistles. The real enemy seems to be the encroachment of Alder but the cattle do not touch this and it continues to grow and choke the fen areas.

I would be interested in the opinion of others and their experiences with this policy. I understand there will be a counter argument extolling the virtues of grazing but I'm struggling to see it fully and do the benefits outweigh the apparent damage caused ?



Rachy Ramone's picture

This has been raised previously...

.. but it still bears further discussion.

It is a fact that nature reserves have to be "managed" otherwise they revert to wilderness, ie nettles, brambles, and whatever tree is best suited to the situation: Alder/willow, or Ash, generally.

It is also a fact that management costs money. Even if you use volunteers, you still need an organisation, insurance, etc.

Livestock only need fencing - which most nature reserves need anyway to keep out marauders - and often you can get them for free. You may even get someone to pay you to let them graze there.

Best practice is to fence off the reserve in zones and move the livestock periodically. This allows each zone to recover, and as most wildflower plants self-seed, all zones will have a bank of seeds.

I don't particularly like having cattle in nature reserves, but the only times I've seen ponies used made me very cross, as their feet were in a terrible state: horses need maintenance. All herbivores poach wet ground, unfortunately.

So in my opinion, this style of management is the most sensible, economically, if done on rotation.

Rachy Ramone

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lavateraguy's picture

There is a LNR (and SSSI) about 15 miles away ...

... which was a lowland wet heath with several interest plants, including county rarieties. I went to have a look last year and found that it hasn't been managed, and succession has mostly converted it into woodland. Some heathland plants are surviving (Calluna vulgaris, Molinia caerulea, Ulex europaeus and Ulex gallii), but the only one of the rarities that I found was Hydrocotyle vulgaris. I struck out on about a dozen other species. And there are several invasive non-natives present - Crassula helmsii, Solidago gigantea Vinca ?minor.

I don't know that grazing would have been appropriate (and the site is unfenced and bordered on several side by a village), but it illustrates the need for management.

John Bratton's picture

Firstly, my sympathy to you

Firstly, my sympathy to you for living in a county where Hydrocotyle vulgaris is a county rarity. I hadn't realised Cheshire was so dire.

Going back to the original query, poached ground is a natural feature and has a whole suite of plant species dependent on it, some very rare, not to mention the invertebrates (which I won't do for fear of annoying RR). Like most aspects of management, it is a question of striking the balance between the different ends of the grazing spectrum. This is increasingly difficult as pasture nature reserves are often little islands in a sea of intensive agriculture. Getting the right grazing intensity depends on having somewhere else to move the stock to when necessary.
Personally I much prefer grazing over mowing, burning, and worst of all but increasingly seen on reserves, strimming. Grazing doesn't give the sudden shock to the ecosystem that the others do, and has the added benefit of herbivore dung. That is not to say that all meadows should be switched to pasture, but where there is no long tradition to guide the choice, I prefer grazing.

dejayM's picture


Oh how nice to see such a 'question'.
I have some experience, just enough to contribute.
I have a natural reserve of seven mixed acres in Orkney. It would not measure up to even a Local Nature Reserve but when I'm gone (27 years), it will be cherished by my successors.
For the first 9 years I rented out the grazing for cows, sometimes with calves often without. I kept them AWAY from my newly planted treelets. In return, I asked the farmer to feed the fields with dung, still keeping one field solely for silage. I forbade fertiliser pellets - he was unhappy but compliant. That one, never grazed, field is a delight of spring meadow flowers but now begins to 'go back' after the ten years
For one whole year (just finished) I have grazed with ponies, two Shetland and one Irish thoroughbred.
The ponies have stripped down the grazing fields, almost to bare earth in places, something cattle would never do. They have begun, successfully, to reduce the rush density, which the kye never did. BUT the pressure points, where they stand in Winter, or at least end of Autumn in the case of kye, waiting for feed, is the same in both cases - highly destructive.
I have seen good management with highland cattle, bad management with red deer and the best management? Labour intensive human. With a decent annual plan, some voluntary help and a loving woodsman. Piles of cut timber, mown or selectively-grazed rides, using sheep, brashing, water clearance and some offers to groups who like trapping - insects, birds and small mammals in return for management favours.
Bring back labour, caring workers and undergraduate Countryside Management groups.

Ambroise's picture

This is a really fundamental

This is a really fundamental question!

Grazing is fundamental in systems like the New Forest and most moor area in England. On large scales and long-term, herbivores keep the land from encroachment and create an extroardinary mosaic of disturbance. Much of the biodiversity we see today in the UK and in temperate Europe is the result of some sort of grazing or browsing - either historical or current; either domesticated herbivores of wild ones.

At a small scale it can be quite difficult to get it right in terms of grazing pressure. It all depends on the aims, the type of herbivore, the fertility and humidity status of the soils. But some sort of disturbance is necessary to maintain habitats the way we want them.

I'd go and speak with the managers of the nature reserves you mention and highlight the damages you have observed. I am sure the managers will be interested in your input!

dejayM's picture

an extroardinary mosaic of disturbance

Yes, absolutely; I agree Ambroise. Chris, if the managers give the impression that they don't want input or are slow on the uptake, speak quietly to a few workers and let them pass the message.
But you mention "several Reserves.." which may make your life rather more full than it is already.
Good luck.

Amadan's picture

Part of the problem -

Apart from the hardy perennial one of resources, is what the site is being managed for.
In my experience, whether due to local personalities or funding issues, a site will often be managed with the conservation of just one species in mind. I could list quite a few instances where such management was detrimental to many other plants and animals.
Even when the management tactic is the "right" one, it also has to be overseen to make sure it is carried out appropriately. What is needed is a person with a real knowledge of the site, to ensure that sensitive areas are protected.

marksteer's picture

Grazing in Nature Reserves

Recent introduction of Highland cattle into Marsh area of Nature Reserve:

This Marsh was grazed 20-30 years ago but has been steadily encroached by willow and other species.
It used to have Marsh Fritillary butterflies but none seen in recent years. There is limited Devil's-Bit scabious there and the hope is that this species will spread and maybe Marsh Fritillary will return.
Also grazing may increase bio-diversity with other species plants, insects.

The more I know the more I realise I don't know

Amadan's picture

Choice of grazing animal

The problem is also that many grazing animals are choosy. If a site is being encroached by willow or other shrubby plants, the best method is to use goats for a short period, either initially, or as a follow-on after cattle or horses have eaten the tastier grasses.
Goats need quite a bit of care, not only for their welfare but to ensure they are removed before they can have a detrimental effect.
This adds to the overall cost and man-hours, so in many cases it's a non-starter. But at Wilden Marsh in the 1980's they were invaluable in getting scrub and Himalayan Balsam reduced, if not actually under control. Since then, the Worcs Trust have worked small miracles, I gather; in restoring the site. One day I must go back to see it.