Fersiwn Gymraeg ar gael yma

With nature reserves across Wales closed to visitors, and our wardens’ work postponed during lockdown, there is one group of ‘conservation wardens’ who’ve continued their work throughout this time. Indeed, thanks to our Welsh native breeds, nature has continued to have a had a helping hand on our reserves.

Livestock grazing is an extremely valuable resource in managing our most precious wildlife habitats. From the Hebridean and Welsh mountain sheep at RSPB South Stack and RSPB Ramsey, to the native breeds of Carneddau and mountain ponies at RSPB Ynys-hir and RSPB Conwy, to the Welsh Black cattle at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy. They all play their part in helping to save nature.

More than just horsing around

At RSPB Ynys-hir we have 17 Welsh Mountain Ponies. Short and sturdy, they are well suited to the rough grazing on the reserve.

On Foel Fawr, there is a traditional ffridd habitat, which is a mosaic of bracken, grassland and scrub. Tree pipits, whinchats, nightjars and fritillary butterflies are all declining species that are found here, and each need a mosaic of open and scrubby habitats.

On our bog, a light grazing pressure is ideal for creating the right type of habitat for the rare bog bush cricket, and on our fen the pony grazing is enough to stop rank rush and grasses taking over. However, we need to maintain a careful balance so that the level of grazing is not so intensive as to damage the habitat needed for the grasshopper warbler - one of our more cryptic and difficult to see species.

On our lowland wet grassland, our tenant farmer is also managing cattle that graze our wader fields, to get the sward conditions just right for nesting lapwings and redshank. The saltmarsh sheep, with their summer grazing, help keep the sward open for a whole range of saltmarsh plants that would struggle if the grass sward became too thick.

At RSPB Conwy, similar work is being carried out by the Carneddau ponies. Some birds, like the lapwing, nest on the ground, so keeping the grass short encourages them to nest there. In winter the ponies will also consume reeds and brambles, stopping these plants from spreading.

As part of the essential work on the reserve, daily checks have continued on the welfare of the eight ponies and four foals. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII, wanted to improve the breeds of horses – so he ordered the destruction of all stallions under 15 hands and all mares under 13 hands in the Breed of Horses Act 1535. The Carneddau Pony, standing at 10-11 hands, would’ve been on that list - but the hills and mountains of Wales provided a safe hiding place from the King’s men!

Anything but sheepish

Our island reserves have been well looked after by our native breed of sheep. On Anglesey, at RSPB South Stack, our flock of Hebridean sheep keep the vegetation down and help clear thick, matted grass so that the flower seeds underneath get the light needed to grow again. Once the flowers bloom, they attract butterflies, bees and other insects.

Since the 18th century, about 80% of Britain’s heathlands have been lost through development, agricultural improvements and abandonment. This means heathland like The Range at RSPB South Stack is a very special place, even rarer than a rainforest!

It is an essential habitat for the rare and threatened chough. The open low growing heath and grassland providing important feeding areas. It is also home to an important range of very rare plants and supports a diverse suite of invertebrates like the endangered and beautiful silver-studded blue butterfly.

Hebridean sheep thrive on nutrient-poor vegetation and are therefore an ideal breed for grazing on heathlands. The sheep at RSPB South Stack are ‘close shepherded’ – Denise the warden tracks the sheep via GPS so that we can see where they graze; for how long, and how often.

On RSPB Ramsey Island, Greg the Site Manger has remained on the island during lockdown to care for the island’s sheep. As in South Stack, sheep provide ideal conditions for our nationally important population of chough to feed.  

Chough numbers have gradually increased since the RSPB bought Ramsey in 1992 and 2019 was the first year RSPB Ramsey saw double figures breeding with a record 11 pairs. This year the reserve still has 10 pairs and so is the second highest year on record for the reserve.

The sheep graze the grass down to a height that is suitable for chough to probe the soil and extract soil invertebrates like beetle larvae. If the grass gets too long, it becomes unusable by chough as they cannot access the soil, the long grass also cools the soil which is not as good for invertebrates.

As this is the direst spring in 15 years, it means that the grass still hasn’t grown much following the winter, and as a result Greg must continue feeding the sheep.

Looking after their welfare also involves worming and treating them with a fly repellent. Until they are sheared in June, they are vulnerable to a condition called ‘fly strike’ whereby greenbottles lay their eggs in the fleece and the maggots hatch on the skin and eat the sheep alive! The spray put on them lasts for the six to eight weeks so should see them through to shearing time. We cannot shear any sooner as it is too cold and apart from needing their wool for most of the spring it doesn’t ‘lift’ and become ready for shearing until June.

The sheep in the photo above is Molly, one of Ramsey’s ‘special’ sheep! She was the first molly lamb (i.e. bottle fed) that was hand reared when the reserve started lambing in 2008. She is now 12 years old!

Over in Mid Wales, at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy, RSPB Cymru manages the land around Tŷ-Llwyd Farm on behalf of the owners, Hafren Dyfrdwy.

Managing the largest organic farm in Wales with thousands of Welsh mountain sheep, 120 Welsh black cattle and 40 Welsh Mountain Ponies has meant that our dedicated farm team haven’t been able to take their foot off the pedal since lockdown began. Lambing of over 3000 ewes began in late March running through to early May – it’s been hectic!

Most ewes and lambs will go up onto the mountain in the next few weeks, helping to maintain the habitat in suitable conditions and supporting some key breeding species such as the hen harrier.

Welsh Black cattle graze differently to the sheep, creating a mosaic of different habitats which attract butterflies. Evidence suggests that meadow pipits will produce bigger eggs in areas where cattle have grazed moorland. The rich dung supports insects, which are eaten by meadow pipits, which in turn provides food for merlins.

Nature friendly farming on our reserves keeps habitats healthy for wildlife, whilst providing lots of other benefits such as clean air and water; storage of carbon, and reduction in flood risk.

We’d like to remind everyone that our nature reserves remain closed to the public. This follows guidelines from the Welsh Government for us to remain at home apart from a limited number of activities. Stay safe and we look forward to welcoming you back in the future when it is safe to do so.

Thank you for your continued support as our vital work to save nature continues.