Send in the sows
Armies of pigs, ponies, cattle and sheep are being deployed across the country to enhance woodland and even help rare natterjack toads. Vicky Liddell reports on the growing trend for ‘conservation grazing’
SATISFIED snorting and snuffling noises can be heard from deep within the 250 acres of parkland that surround the Grade Ii-listed Haigh Hall in Lancashire. The sounds are emanating from a group of British Saddleback pigs that are busy regenerating woodland after the removal of the dominant rhododendrons. They’re owned by Conservation Pigs, which, as its name suggests, uses pigs to help support the conservation and management of landscapes and is just one of a growing number of examples in which rarebreed pigs have been bought in to successfully reduce the density of forestry.
‘Wild and domestic pigs were once a common sight in British woodland,’ points out Katie Swift, ecologist and joint founder of Conservation Pigs, ‘but, apart from the annual pannage (or common of mast)—which takes place in the New Forest, where pigs feast on the acorns that would poison other livestock—the custom of keeping pigs in woods has died out.’
These days, according to Miss Swift, many people wrongly imagine that pigs are destructive and will uproot everything, when their rootling actually does a great deal of good. ‘Porcine tasks are tailored according to the type of terrain,’ she explains. ‘If there are lots of brambles, we’ll send in the larger sows, as the boars tend to be a bit lazy.’ When tackling bracken, it’s important to reduce the pig’s pre-made food and to give them time to tackle the undergrowth. ‘Before long, the sows are pulling it up and using it as bedding.’
The British Saddleback’s enormous lop ears and cheerful disposition make it an ideal pig for the job. Its snout delves deep, but not too far, into the soil and its random approach to grazing gives resident invertebrates a chance.
‘The resulting fine-tilled mosaic is far superior to anything that could be achieved by chemicals and machinery,’ confirms Miss Swift. ‘At one site at Moor Piece Nature Reserve near Clitheroe, there was no trailer access and the pigs had to be led in on harnesses, but they did a beautiful job.’
Further south at the Marks Hall estate in Coggeshall, Essex, Jonathan Jukes has been running pigs under the conifers for 12 years in a bid to control the bracken and bramble. ‘They arrive in April as 14-week-old piglets and work for six months. Almost immediately, there is a general upcycle of the entire ecosystem, ’enthuses Mr Jukes. ‘Robins appear and now, two years later, we have a wonderful display of foxgloves.’
What’s more, as in Lancashire, the end product is increasingly popular. Forest pork is leaner and much finer textured and many believe acorns and beechnuts further enhance the flavour.
Conservation grazing comes in all shapes and sizes and, for Trevor Dines, botanist and conservationist at Plantlife, it arrived in the shape of two hairy ginger Highland Cattle that have been helping him create one of the 90 Coronation Meadows (developed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Queen’s Coronation) on a smallholding in the Conwy Valley, North Wales. ‘Meadows make animals and animals make meadows,’ declares Dr Dines. ‘If they’re not cut and grazed at the right time of year, the fields quickly lose their floral diversity.’ The cows, Breagha and Cadi, have now been joined by a third, Sorcha, and are very docile despite their fearsome-looking horns.
As well as consuming the grass, they also help to trample donor flower
seed into the ground. Once the yellow rattle starts to germinate, the cattle are moved to another field, returning when the flowers have set seed. ‘This year, I spotted some devil’s-bit scabious and some betony for the first time,’ reports Dr Dines.
At the other end of the scale, the cows of Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons in Gloucestershire are munching in numbers. Here, on 865 unfenced acres, as many as 500 cattle graze the ancient limestone grassland keeping it at just the right height to allow diverse wildlife to flourish. Every year, on May 13, the cattle are released by 13 different graziers and overseen by the Hayward (an old Anglo Saxon term meaning ‘keeper of the hedge’), Mark Dawkins, until the end of October.
‘The wandering stock tend to stay in their own groups, but do occasionally get in the way of motorists,’ admits Mr Dawkins. ‘They’re very keen to arrive, but as it starts to get colder, they start wandering back to their farms.’ Although the older cows know the grazing well, the younger ones have to be taught in a process called ‘hefting’, which
is why small groups of cattle may sometimes be spotted wandering around the town rubbing themselves on a passing wing mirror.
As conservation success stories go, the Commons are exceptional, with carpets of wildflowers from cowslips and horseshoe vetch to wild thyme and hairy violet. Among the butterflies are the dingy skipper, brown argus and the adonis blue, which has been spotted for the first time since 1962.
Even the dung has its own ecosystem, with each cowpat providing a home for more than 250 species, which, in turn, feed birds, badgers, foxes and bats.
Meadows make animals and animals make meadows. Ungrazed, they lose diversity
For slopes and upland areas, sheep are considered a better option and are particularly useful in preventing sensitive archaeological sites from becoming smothered by rank vegetation. A smaller body allows sheep to move readily into scrub and they’re also a good choice where there’s a lot of yew, of which they can eat small quantities with no apparent ill effect, as on Stockbridge Down in Hampshire.
For three years now, a flock of 30 Wiltshire Horn sheep has been grazing two separate pastures on Stockbridge Down under the watchful eye of Catherine Hadler, a National Trust Ranger, and seven community shepherds, who check the flock daily. ‘The Down is common land and can only be grazed by Commoners’ or National Trust livestock,’ explains Miss Hadler, ‘but there were no Commoners with sheep, so we bought our own.’
Having opted for a local rare breed, with the added bonus of long legs to escape danger, horns for self-defence and the ability to self-shear by pulling their fleece out on vegetation, these increasingly barrel-shaped ‘woolly wonders’ have been very successful. ‘The quality of the herb and grassland has improved massively and, this year, we had an invasion of cowslips, speedwells and violets— I even spotted a Duke of Burgundy for the first time,’ confirms Miss Hadler.
For really sensitive sites, Shetland sheep are a popular choice, as they have smaller feet and thrive on verylow-quality grassland. Jenny Holdenwilde of Wilde Ecology in Cumbria keeps a ‘flying flock’ of Shetlands that have been sent out to graze a variety of habitats for the Forestry Commission and private landowners. ‘They’re great escapologists and will stand on their back legs like goats,’ she laughs. ‘Good fencing is essential, but they have been very successful in managing habitats for marsh fritillary butterflies and the now rare natterjack toad, which needs areas of short grass to hunt for food.’
For Tom Beeston of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), conservation grazing is, without a doubt, the way forward. ‘Over time, with no interference, most of our nature reserves would revert to deciduous woodland and the best way to hold it is by using grazing animals,’ he reasons. ‘Rare breeds are smaller and hardier and there’s always the right breed for the job. In fact, some, such as the Hebridean sheep, have come off the danger list as a result of their popularity in grazing.’
Indeed, Ruth Dalton, RBST regional field officer for the Grazing Animals Project, has seen numbers on its livestock-checking and site-management courses increase annually. ‘People now know what conservation grazing means and the line between farming and conservation farming is much more blurred,’ she says. ‘Yes, it’s going back to the past,’ agrees Mr Beeston, ‘but it’s also about preserving the breeds and the landscape for the future.’
Previous pages: Better than any machine: the Saddleback pig is coming into its own. Above: Exmoor ponies have been relocated to the Sussex coast near Beachy Head
Above: Shetland cattle help to regenerate common land in Dorset. Right: Demand for Hebridean sheep as conservation grazers has helped save the breed
Extremely ewes-ful: Wiltshire horn sheep lend atmosphere to the ancient Avebury site in Wiltshire