Heathland grazing

For centuries domestic livestock have helped maintain the heaths until recent decades when they ceased to have a place in the lives of Surrey people. In many circumstances there is no substitute for grazing by domestic livestock and it is impossible to replicate its effects with cutting. Grazing by wild animals in Surrey is rarely significant, rabbits have locally intense effects and are very selective; roe deer can occasionally be useful in controlling regrowth of birch after cutting. Heathland managers have recognised the potential value of grazing heathland along with the difficulties of its reintroduction. The recreational uses now made of heathland open spaces mean that integration with such activities has to be considered carefully.

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 equestrian access.


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 their visits.

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 for information on commons.

Back-up land

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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Contact details

Project Manager – Dr Rob McGibbon
Senior Project Officer – Marcus Turley

Surrey Heathland Project, Artington House, Portsmouth Road, Guildford, Surrey GU2 4DZ
Telephone: 01483 579713
Fax: 01483 579740

The Heathland Project is supported by:

Surrey County Council, Guildford Borough Council, Waverley Borough Council, Woking Borough Council, Runnymede Borough Council, Ewhurst Parish Council, Witley Parish Council, Wonersh Parish Council, RSPB, English Nature, MoD and the Herpetological Conservation Trust

Surrey County Council
working in partnership
Surrey Countryside Management