The Heathland Project first began grazing in 1991 with Shetland
and New Forest ponies. Numbers of grazing stock quickly expanded
to include Hebridean sheep, goats and cattle (and livestock on loan).
At the height of the grazing programme, the Project was responsible
for some 150 hectares of heathland grazing in Surrey. More than
12 years of grazing experience has enabled the Heathland Project
to learn how various species of grazing animal can be used for managing
vegetation as well as how to integrate grazing into a landscape
heavily used for recreation.
Heathland usually has a low potential to feed animals. During the
summer, heather is avoided as a food by ponies except when hard
pressed; cattle eat a small amount and only sheep and goats eat
it in any quantity. The amount of grass on a heathland area therefore
has a big bearing on how many animals can be grazed. Whilst animals
can be expected to forage for their food, they must not be allowed
to lose too much condition or the site damaged by over grazing.
Livestock welfare is paramount.
Grass on heathland has increased as a result of lack of management,
tree invasion and atmospheric pollution, all of which lead to increased
fertility and favour grasses. There are two key grass species involved:
purple moor grass, more important on Thames Basin heaths and wavy
hair-grass, probably more abundant on Wealden heaths. Purple moor
grass grows from May to September, when it can provide a appreciable
amounts of growth over that limited period. Summer grazing year
on year will gradually reduce the amount of grass and stocking rates
will need to be reduced accordingly. The average summer grazing
rate in Surrey is one cow/pony for every 4 hectares (10 acres).
Only goats at a high stocking rate will control established scrub
(birch and pine up to 2m). However grazing by any domestic livestock
will reduce the number of tree seedlings which establish. Cattle
and sheep will nip off growing shoots of many tree and shrub species.
Ponies will eat the tips of gorse especially in the winter.
Most site managers in Surrey have concentrated on grazing by cattle
or ponies. This has the advantage of being more compatible with
dog walking as well as creating the intended shift away from grass
domination of heathland. Cattle and ponies have the advantage of
being more selective grazers of grass, and because of their weight,
break up ground to give buried heather seed the chance to grow.
Grazing can bring to heathland a measure of long-term sustainable
management which is difficult to get any other way, though some
extra scrub control is likely to be necessary. Grazing will bring
variety into the structure of heathland areas as well as increase
bare ground, important to many heathland insects.
Animal grazing preferences
The species, breed, age and individuality of animals all affect
what they will eat and therefore what effect they will have on the
habitat on which they live. Variability of the site (vegetation,
topography and weather) will all act in addition to the animal variability.
Ponies tend to be the easiest to manage livestock – easy to move
around (if trained to a head collar), easy to keep in condition
and good for reducing the dominance of grasses on grass-invaded
heathland. Free grazing ponies can sometimes cause problems to horse
riders, something which needs to be borne in mind where sites have
Cattle have similar effects in reducing grass dominance but graze
more scrub and heather which can be an advantage. Cattle are generally
more acceptable to horse riders. Both cattle and ponies are able
to put ‘structure’ back into the heathland, perhaps the greatest
benefit of grazing.
Hebridean sheep have potential for controlling scrub, though if
stocking rates are too high they can easily graze out the heather.
As we need to accomodate recreation and grazing, dog walking precludes
sheep grazing in most places.
Goats are able to eat almost anything to which they have access,
including quite large pine and birch. They therefore have considerable
potential to restore heathland but there are similar problems to
those for sheep in terms of interactions with dogs.
Much of the early grazing experience of the Heathland Project relied
on the use of temporary electric fenced enclosures, which allowed
the introduction of the concept of grazing to local people in a
low-key way. Cattle and ponies could be contained within a single
strand of wire or tape, which was both relatively cheap and quick
to set up. Simple squeezes or portable gates could be included to
allow pedestrian access. Where natural or mains water was not present,
provision by bowser was required, which, together with daily checking
of animals had major cost implications. Catching and treating cattle
in these temporary areas was helped by portable handling equipment.
The long-term aim of the Heathland Project was to perimeter fence
sites with permanent fencing, establish permanent water supplies
and provide ample public access. Fencing as a means of preventing
livestock straying onto busy roads helps maintain these areas and
never is to exclude people from these areas. The Project consults
local people to accommodate their views, providing access which
in its design and siting, takes into account their use of the site.
Bridleways crossing fenced areas have specially designed self-closing
equestrian gates allowing not only access by horse riders but also
pedestrians, wheelchairs and pushchairs. Footpaths and tracks have
specially designed kissing gates also allowing wheelchairs and pushchairs
access. Where possible, fences are hidden in the trees on the perimeter
of the site.
Most heathland managers regard fencing as a necessary evil and,
for the users of these sites, it can hardly be an imposition to
pass through a gate if fencing allows us to safeguard the precious
areas we have left. Fences are necessary to manage heathland sites
traditionally alongside our modern way of life. As late as the early
1950’s in parts of Surrey, domestic livestock could graze freely,
without fences, but Surrey was a very different place then! Experience
has shown us that most people who use heathland sites for recreation
find that fences and grazing animals do not spoil their enjoyment.
Many are pleased to have the added interest of seeing animals on
Common land legislation
Much of the heathland in Surrey is registered Common Land, most
under the Law of Property Act 1925 and requires permission from
the Secretary of State for the Environment before fencing can be
erected. There is a lengthy application process. See http://www.defra.gov.uk/wildlife-countryside/issues/common/
for information on commons.
Heathland grazing, particularly when it is dependent upon the growth
of purple moor-grass, is seasonal so there is an emphasis on summer
grazing on heathland in Surrey. Grazing on ‘back-up land’ is necessary
to support the livestock over the rest of the year. ‘Back-up land’
can be improved grassland but can also be unimproved downland or
other rough grazing where winter grazing can have conservation benefit.
Heathland with a high proportion of wavy haired grass and gorse
offers the opportunity of year-round grazing for well-grown ponies,
much reducing the need for back-up land.
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