Conservation grazing

Hebridean sheep on Nipstone Rock nature reserve

Amazing grazers

What is Conservation Grazing?

 

Conservation grazing is grazing with livestock to maintain and increase wildlife value. Livestock refers to domesticated animals reared in an agricultural setting, such as cows, sheep, pigs, goats and ponies.

In the past, the countryside would have been grazed by wild animals or through traditional farming and common land grazing practices. In conservation grazing we seek to replicate these kinds of grazing systems to maintain and increase biodiversity whilst ensuring animal welfare.

You’ll be amazed at the ways conservation grazing helps wildlife:

  • Pick and mix - When livestock are allowed to graze freely on our nature reserves, they can pick and choose what and where they eat. This selective eating creates a mix of different conditions (niches) benefiting a wide range of wildlife - from insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, plants and fungi.
  • On the hoof - Light poaching of the ground by grazing animals creates bare ground in which wildflower seeds can germinate. This open ground creates a whole micro-climate in itself, attractive as a home and hunting ground for warmth loving invertebrates and reptiles.

 

How does Shropshire Wildlife Trust carry out Conservation Grazing?

We often work with local farmers who graze our land with their animals. Alternatively, some of our reserves are grazed by sheep we own. The choice of grazing animal is important as different kinds of livestock vary in their grazing and browsing habits. The type and breed of grazing animal has to be suitable for the habitat they will graze – both for nature conservation and animal welfare reasons. We choose non-commercial breeds based on their grazing preference- Dexter cattle are ideal for grazing the scrub and rough grasses on the slopes of Earl's and Pontesford Hills and Hebridean Sheep forage on the rushy meadows of the Stiperstones.

 

As a vegetarian of over 30 years I never thought I would be promoting the sale of meat products. However, I find myself doing this willingly as part of our conservation grazing initiative. As a Reserves manager I understand completely how important the role of grazing is in improving and maintaining the majority of the open habitats on our nature reserves. Whether it be a flower rich meadow, heathland or a wetland, grazing by herbivores is by far the best (and most natural) way of managing the land so that a variety of plants can flourish and support the insects and all other wildlife that depend on those conditions. Of course, long before humans dramatically changed the landscape for our own purposes this would have occurred naturally. Now, rewilding projects aside, we have to simulate those natural processes using domestic livestock – sheep, cattle, ponies, pigs and goats.
Grazing our nature reserves with domestic livestock largely comes at a price as our reserves are not providing the highly fertilised lush grass that a commercial farmer is depending on. Bringing in some level of income to at least partly cover this cost is essential if it is to continue. Until recently we have been lucky in that our conservation grazing has been supported by external project funding but this is becoming harder to acquire. Selling meat products from our livestock through local outlets is a great way to bring in some funding. So, how do I square this with my vegetarianism? Well, people are going to eat meat whether I like it or not. I believe it is far better for that meat to come from animals which have been reared locally, in the open countryside and well cared for than from a more commercial, intensive livestock rearing farm. What’s more, the consumers will be supporting essential conservation management for wildlife!
Gareth Egarr
North Reserves Officer
Earl's Hill nature reserve, Shropshire, cattle, farms

Dexter cattle grazing on Earl's Hill nature reserve.