Why Cattle are important to the Health of Wilden Marsh and our Other Nature Reserves
Readers of The Wilden Marsh Blog will be aware that many of my recent posts have highlighted the marsh conservation herd. The reason is that I am a big fan of conservation grazing. I want others to understand that cattle are not on the marsh and other local wildlife reserves to make them look more interesting, or to add a little colour. Livestock grazing is essential for the management of many important wildlife habitats. Meadows, heathland, wood pasture, coastal and inland marshes, and floodplains all require grazing to maintain fertility, structure and composition of the soil on which a variety of our common and rare plants and animals depend for their survival.
Historically, commercial livestock farming practices have resulted in overgrazing. Under grazing is already a real issue in many lowland areas and will increasingly be so in the future. I don’t see how under gazing, and the dire consequences that will result, can be avoided with all the talk about drastically reducing this country’s grazing herds.
This is where conservation grazing fits-in by providing livestock to help maintain pastoral habitats for wildlife – placing greater emphasis on biological rather than commercial outcomes.
Benefits of conservation grazing
Grazing animals eat selectively and often choose more dominant plant species, which allows less competitive plants to thrive. Wildflowers encourage insects, which are in turn eaten by birds and mammals. As they graze our landscape, the cattle decide for themselves where to concentrate their efforts thereby creating a mosaic of different sward lengths and micro-habitats.
Lying and rolling help increase structural diversity. This can be important for ground-nesting birds like lapwing and snipe that need a variety of sward heights to successfully rear their young.
Trampling creates areas of bare ground, producing nurseries for seedlings that might not otherwise survive and providing basking and hunting opportunities for warmth-loving invertebrates and reptiles. Wading birds feed in muddy areas.
Dung generates an ecosystem in its own right. By minimising the use of chemicals to control internal parasites a whole host of wildlife will colonise a cowpat – more than 250 species of insect can be found in or on cattle dung and these in turn provide food for birds, badgers, foxes and bats.
On Wilden Marsh we need to control scrub to prevent the site turning into dense woodland within a decade. Cattle don’t eat trees, but they do nibble saplings, which helps the cause.
So when you see cattle roaming our reserves and green spaces, spare a thought or two for the excellent job they do for us people and our local environments. Cattle are not just dumb animals bred for our dinner plates or to provide milk for our tea and cornflakes, they are important to the land around us.
Autumn and winter are important grazing seasons on Wilden Marsh. The cattle prefer to eat all the lush and tasty vegetation before grazing the less palatable rough plants, like rushes and woody scrub, which they eat in winter. There are pedegree cattle on Wilden Marsh throughout the year, every year, no matter what the weather and they are fabulous.