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Grazing the land

PoniesPonies

By Andrew Walter

Many of our nature reserves are valued for their species-rich grassland.

To manage these grasslands it is necessary to maintain healthy surface vegetation. Just about all of the Trust’s nature reserves with grassland compartments are grazed in some manner by sheep, cattle or ponies that are owned by people who live locally.

Grazing the land prevents a build-up of tussocks and robust coarse species that could otherwise out-compete less vigorous, more diverse vegetation. Grazing animals also check the encroachment of scrub by browsing, preventing the succession of grassland to woodland. Hoof action on the ground creates bare areas and breaks up coarse or matted vegetation providing seeding opportunities for flowering plants. The animal’s dung returns nutrients and organic matter to the soil and feeds many invertebrate species and fungi as it decays. Managed correctly, this provides the basis of a good, healthy sward (surface vegetation including roots and soil). Without grazing we would need to manually cut and remove grass, like we would a hay meadow and this uses fossil fuel and time resources.

All-year light grazing by cattle certainly works best within extensive grazing of large nature reserves like Hutton Roof Crags and Whitbarrow, but this is not possible on many of our smaller grassland areas. Summer grazing can be useful to redress the balance on a site that has become rank but this must be carefully controlled. Either very light or occasional grazing would suffice; continuous summer grazing over many years often results in the loss of some species altogether.

The Trust uses various different means to achieve adequate grazing. Neighbouring farmers, conservation graziers and smallholders are all called upon to help manage the Trust’s suite of nature reserves. Some often small, inaccessible grassland areas have to be cut and raked by hand because they can’t be grazed. Boundaries must also be maintained to keep livestock where we want them!

Animal species and breeds graze in different ways. Breeds native to the area tend to be the best, whether cattle, sheep or ponies, since the breed has been developed over many generations to be suited to the local conditions, natural habitats and weather.

We end up with well-managed species-rich grasslands, created using sustainable methods. The grazing animals can also offer a source of food of the highest quality. If animals are reared to maturity on conservation grazing (so they are only grass-fed and are matured slowly), the meat will have better flavour and a more healthy balance of fatty acids than intensively reared livestock. Finally, the animal dung provides habitat for invertebrates and fungi and replenishes the soil structure and micro-organisms. 

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