If you’ve visited an RSPB nature reserve, you will have seen that they’re not just home to birds. They support a plethora of wildlife from tiny, rare flowers like the yellow centuary, to our largest beetle, the heath tiger beetle. These wildlife havens are managed by an incredible team of staff and volunteers up and down the country, but sometimes we need a helping hand, or hoof. 

Chough foraging in front of Highland cattle, an example of grazing supporting species conservation – Tony Blunden (rspb-images.com)
A chough foraging in front of Highland cattle – Tony Blunden (rspb-images.com) 

 

Kelly Thomas, RSPB Senior Ecologist explains - “In the absence of the wild large herbivores that once roamed the British Isles, conservation grazing has increasingly become a key part of conservation management.

“The RSPB reserve network includes 224 nature reserves covering a total area four times the size of the Isle of Wight. These sites encompass a wide variety of semi-natural habitats, including heathland, wet grassland, reedbed, fen, woodland, peat bog, and chalk grassland. Each nature reserve has a set of management objectives specific to the precious habitats and species which are present or could colonise the site.  

“Appropriate grazing at the reserves (achieved through a combination of stock type, stocking densities and timings) can be the key to good habitat management for wildlife.  At many RSPB nature reserves native livestock breeds are helping to create the ideal conditions for rare and threatened species of wildlife.” 

 

Haweswater hooves 

Mardale Common is a 1,377-hectare area of the Lake District landscape. Owned by United Utilities and managed by the RSPB since 2011, the Common includes a mixed habitat of bog, heath, grassland and scrub, as well as botanically species-rich cliffs and ledges, with alpine plants of national importance. 

Although small parts of the Common’s habitats are in good condition, the land as a whole has been negatively impacted by centuries of sheep grazing. Now, a grant from The Skelton Trust has allowed RSPB Haweswater to test a new regime with 11 belted Galloways. These cattle will be managed through a fenceless grazing system with GPS collars.  

Belted Galloway’s exploring Mardale Common for the first time – Lee Schofield 
Belted Galloway’s exploring Mardale Common for the first time – Lee Schofield 

We have reduced the number of sheep at Haweswater, but they still have an important role to play. They graze the species-rich hay meadows as well as the reserve’s wood pastures, where large, well-spaced trees provide a home for pied flycatchers and other woodland birds.

 

Ponies at The Lodge 

As well as the variety of wildlife already on view at The Lodge, there is another species for you to admire. Earlier this year we welcomed six Dartmoor ponies, who grazed at The Lodge from April to August. Not just a pretty face either, just like the belted Galloways, these ponies have a job to do.  

The ponies will graze on birch saplings, bramble and broom, which currently have to be removed by hand. They will also help keep the grasses that compete with the heather under control, as well as grazing on the heather itself. This promotes growth, and creates diversity in the heather structure and age, which we've previously had to create by mowing.  

Dartmoor ponies exploring The Lodge – Beth Aucott
Dartmoor ponies exploring The Lodge – Beth Aucott 

Bracken will get trampled by the ponies, which will help to stop it from encroaching on heathland too. The bare patches of ground that ponies create with their hooves is fantastic habitat for invertebrates. Previously we used a digger to create bare ground scrapes, and the ponies’ manure also provides ideal habitats for dung-loving insects.  

Livestock grazing can be an essential tool for conservation as demonstrated on both of these sites, among many others. But each nature reserve is different and isn't necessarily one size fits all. We recently ran a trial at RSPB Abernethy, testing cows vs robots, to see which worked best for capercaillie. If you’re visiting one of our fabulous nature reserves and see some of our RSPB hooved colleagues, please remember to keep your distance and not to feed them*, they have an important job to do!  

 

(*food can, however, often be used to entice RSPB human colleagues for a chat. We still recommend keeping your distance...) 


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For more on reserves, visit our Reserves A-Z and head over to our Bird A-Z for identification and behaviour information. Email: natureshome@rspb.org.uk 

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