This week marks a decade since the Wildlife Trust and Ministry of Defence (MOD) first introduced cattle to the MOD training estate, in a bid to improve habitats in the training area for wildlife.
Grazing by livestock is a traditional way of managing heathland, used by the Wildlife Trust and other conservation experts to improve nature reserves and wild spaces for particular species.
The work has seen habitats become more open and varied, creating a richer and more varied range of plants and animals. Bare ground and dormant seeds have been exposed, creating opportunities for the smaller, more fragile species such as the insect-eating sundew to spread once more, or for the bats which feed off the dung flies, which in turn are feeding off cattle dung.
Elliott Fairs, Reserves Manager at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust said: “Conservation grazing on heathlands is the most environmentally friendly and holistic way to restore these wildlife habitats. These landscapes were fundamentally shaped by our ancestors and their domesticated animals working the land. By returning to these methods we can restore habitats now for declining species like sundews and silver studded blue butterflies. Our success in balancing wildlife’s recovery with Ministry of Defence operations is a testament to our strong partnership.”
Local people have benefitted hugely too, Elliott added: “At the start some were uncertain of the livestock and worried it would prevent them from being able to still enjoy the sites. However, these concerns turned to complaints when we took the cattle off site as people said they would miss them. Children know there are cows on the heaths in the area, dog walkers know how to behave responsibly around livestock, and everyone now understands that our fantastic heaths just need looking after”.
“This community engagement over the past ten years has been crucial to species thriving and returning to the area. It’s widely acknowledged that the benefits of conservation grazing grow year on year so if this is the results of ten years grazing, we look forward to seeing the results after 20 or 30 years!”
The reintroduction of such livestock would not have been possible without support from the volunteers who help the Wildlife Trust check the livestock on a daily basis. Some of these ‘lookers’ joined the project at the start, and are still giving up their time to help look after wildlife habitats. For more information on volunteering for the Wildlife Trust, including practical conservation work like removing scrub, and checking on livestock please visit http://www.hiwwt.org.uk/volunteer