Heathland grazing

Why Graze

Nearly all habitats in the UK would revert to woodland if neglected. Grazing has been an important influence on the majority of grassland, moorland, heathland and marsh and quite a lot of woodland. In many circumstances there is no substitute for grazing and it is impossible to replicate its effects with cutting. Grazing by wild animals is rarely significant, rabbits being locally intense and selective, though roe deer can occasionally be useful in controlling regrowth of birch after cutting.

In recent years, heathland managers have recognised the potential value of grazing heathland along with the difficulties of its reintroduction. Historically all heathland has been grazed, however 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 the purchase of 5 New Forest ponies. The grazing stock quickly expanded to include Hebridean sheep, goats (on loan) and cattle. Currently (Autumn 1999) the Project is responsible for 36 British White cattle, 4 New Forest ponies and 40 feral goats.

The 8 years of grazing experience have enabled the Heathland Project to learn much of the different uses of various species for managing vegetation as well as how to integrate stock into a landscape heavily used for recreation.

It should be noted that heathland usually has a low potential to feed animals. Heather is avoided by ponies except when hard pressed; cattle eat a small amount and only sheep and goats eat it in any quantity. Particularly for cattle and ponies, the amount of grass on a heathland area determines how many animals can be grazed. Whilst animals can be expected to forage for their food if heathland is to be properly managed, their 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 spieces 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, so limiting the cattle and pony grazing period. Light grazing will gradually reduce the amount of grass and stocking rates will need to be reduced accordingly. The average 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.

In Surrey, there are now some 390 hectares of heathland currently under grazing, not all by the Project, half is under National Trust and some of the rest is carried out by local authorities with varying amounts of input from the Project.

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. Some extra scrub control is likely to be necessary as will rotational cutting or burning of heather to provide a diversity of age. Grazing will bring variety into the structure of heathland areas as well as increase bare ground, important to many heathland insects.



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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 were found to be the easiest to manage livestock – easy to move around, easy to keep in condition and good for reducing the dominance of grasses on grass-invaded heathland. Freely grazing ponies can sometimes cause problems to horse riders, something which needs to be borne in mind where sites have equestrian access.


Cattle have a 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.

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Hebridean sheep have potential at controlling scrub, though if stocking rates are wrong they can easily graze out the heather. As there is often a need to accomodate sheep grazing and recreation in the same enclosure, in Surrey dog walking precludes sheep grazing in many places.


Goats are able to eat almost anything within an enclosure, 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 can be contained within a single strand of wire or tape which is both relatively cheap and quick to set up. Simple squeezes can be included to allow pedestrian access. Where natural water is not present, provision by bowser is required, which, together with daily checking of animals has major cost implications. gateR.jpg (5645 bytes)Catching and treating cattle in these temporary areas has been helped by portable handling equipment.

Increasingly, the aim of the Heathland Project has been to perimeter fence sites, provide for access and establish permanent water supplies. Double boxed gates with easy walk-through self-closing mechanisms are expensive but allow horse rider access.  Specially designed kissing gates allow wheelchairs and pushchairs access.

On the whole, 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. Where possible, fences should be hidden on the perimeter of the site. It is vital to provide access which in its design and siting, takes into account the wishes of local people.


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. This means lengthy preparation prior to an application, a long wait and sometimes a public enquiry.


Back up land

018b.jpg (44633 bytes)Heathland grazing, particularly when it is dependent upon the growth of purple moor-grass, is seasonal so most heathland sites in Surrey are only grazed in the summer. Grazing on ‘back-up land’ is necessary to support the livestock over the rest of the year. ‘Back-up land’ can be unimproved downland or other rough grazing where the 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.


Handing over

Ideally the Heathland Project will pave the way for heathland grazing, gradually handing over to local people, possibly even farmers, once its viability has been shown. However, in Surrey the farming community is small and grazing of marginal land such as heathland is rarely an economic proposal. Many owners would be unwilling to leave stock on heathland long enough to do a useful job lest they lose condition.