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’

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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

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