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Grazing Animal Project

Highland cattle - credit Ellen FairbankHighland cattle - credit Ellen Fairbank

Have you ever wondered why the Trust has livestock on some of its nature reserves? The animals help look after the habitats – we call it ‘conservation grazing’.

Hundreds of years ago, people cleared the land of trees to form open spaces for farming. Their grazing animals helped to shape many of the semi-natural habitats, which developed rich and diverse wildlife communities. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has been using conservation grazing to help manage a number of its nature reserves with these habitats, as it is the best and most economical way to maintain them and their huge variety of plants and animals.

Grazing’s best

Grazing animals eat selectively and often chose the more dominant plant species. Their grazing creates an uneven sward, which gives the less competitive plants a chance to grow and is ideal for all kinds of wildlife: birds, such as lapwings and snipe, build nests, voles and other small mammals find places to hide and many different types of insect are able to colonise. 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. By continuing to graze in a controlled way, we also stop the spread of invasive scrub and bracken and maintain these special habitats and the wildlife that thrives there.

Different types of animals graze in different ways and so have different effects on the habitat. Cattle use their tongues to wrap around and pull tufts of vegetation leaving uneven sward lengths producing a tussocky field. They will eat longer, coarser grasses and push their way through scrub and bracken, which physically damages the plants and helps to create open spaces. Sheep prefer to nibble shorter grasses. They will readily eat bramble and blackthorn, but avoid longer, coarse grasses. Heavier animals break up the ground and create bare areas for seeds to germinate. Hooves also haphazardly push seeds into the ground.

Each Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve has a management plan that outlines a grazing regime required to keep it in good condition. With conservation grazing, stocking densities are often low and grazing is only allowed at set times of the year. We decide whether cattle or sheep would be the most effective for each reserve, and consider the size and age of the animals that will be grazing. Both over and under grazing will reduce the wildlife value of a habitat. Sometimes we do have to cut and remove grass manually, but this has fewer benefits for wildlife.

Our livestock

The Trust grazes hardy breeds of cattle and sheep, as they do not need high quality grass, eating coarse and rough vegetation and remaining outdoors all winter. Currently we have 400 Hebridean sheep, 22 Highland and White Park cattle together with 85 Beef Shorthorn cattle. These animals are moved around the different reserves, allowing them to graze for defined periods depending on each reserve’s requirements.

  • Hebridean sheep are a small hardy breed, browsing on a wide range of vegetation. They will nibble scrub, woody regrowth, coarse grasses and brambles, so are ideal for conservation grazing. A pedigree flock, they are recognized for their ease of lambing and strong maternal instincts. Their black horned feet are harder and more resistant to rot, enabling them to tackle especially wet and boggy terrain. They produce tender meat sought after for its rich flavour, and can also produce quality cross-breed lambs.
  •  Highland cattle are an extremely hardy breed, easily recognized by their prominent horns and long, thick, wavy coats. They graze in all seasons and weather, eating or trampling thick brush such as blackthorn, brambles and holly and can bash through gorse using their horns. Relatively light in weight and with broad hooves, Highlands are also very suited for grazing sensitive wetter areas where hoof damage (poaching) needs to be limited.
  •  White Park cattle are the oldest native breed in Britain. They have impressive horns and a distinct white body with black ears, eyes and nose and are usually quite docile. Also a hardy breed, they cope well with Yorkshire winters and produce quality beef even on poor, rough grazing.
  •  Shorthorn cattle originated in the Durham and Yorkshire area. This pedigree beef herd are hardy and can graze rank and unimproved grasslands, producing choice high quality, marbled beef. Usually red, white or roan, cows are long-lived, maternal, and docile and placid when being handled.

The Trust has an annual management and health and welfare plan for its livestock, which is managed by the Grazing Officer Ellen Fairbank, with the help of a stockman Keith Dunning. The team has to organise the breeding programmes for the pedigree animals, the vaccination programmes for all the livestock, the sheep shearing and the annual grazing plan, and work out the logistics of moving the flying flock. Last spring, we had our Hebridean sheep grazing our nature reserves at Strensall Common, North Cliffe Wood, Staveley and Spurn point, and during this summer our cattle will be grazing Jeffry Bog and North Newbald Becksies. Look out for our annual Lambing Day event in early spring each year and which will be advertised on our What's On pages.

 

White Parks - credit Ellen Fairbank

Meat and wool products

Not only does conservation grazing greatly benefit wildlife, it also allows us to produce our own top-quality meat, reared through this low-input farming method. For information on our Stirley beef boxes see here. We also now produce our own Hebridean wool products including beautiful blankets as well as hand-knitted hats, scarves and mittens amongst other things. By purchasing any of these products you will be supporting our grazing animals which are invaluable for creating and maintaining so many wildlife-rich habitats.

Walking with livestock 

The livestock on our nature reserves are usually docile, but all animals can behave unpredictably on occasion. For a safe and enjoyable visit, please remember:

  • Leave gates and property as you find them. Always close gates behind you if they were already closed. If they are tied open, leave them so.
  • Livestock can behave unpredictably, especially if they’re with their young – give them plenty of space
  • On reserves where dogs are allowed on leads, please keep them under close control and not on extendable leads
  • If a farm animal chases you and your dog, it is better to let go of your dog. Don’t risk getting hurt by trying to protect your dog – it will escape to safety
  • Take particular care that your dog doesn’t scare sheep and lambs or wander where it might disturb birds that nest on the ground and other wildlife
  • Dog faeces are unpleasant and can cause infections. Always clean up after your dog and dispose of the mess responsibly
  • At certain times, dogs may not be allowed on some areas. Please obey any signs
  • Litter can be dangerous to wildlife and livestock, and can spread disease. Take your litter home with you
  • Do not feed livestock. During harsh weather, they will be fed as required
  • Always follow the Countryside Code.


 Contact

Grazing Officer: Ellen Fairbank