A Shetland Cow Lost in Himalayan Balsam

It’s that time of the year again when grass growth quickens as the growing season gets underway. Tiny double leaved sprouts of the dreaded Himalayan balsam plant are now pushing above ground. Initially introduced to the UK in 1839, Himalayan balsam quickly outgrows competition and is widely known as Bizzie Lizzie, Indian Balsam and Policeman’s Helmet. It is the tallest annual plant found in the British Isles and grows to more than 2-3 metres in height. Each plant produces around 800 seeds that explosively release from the seed pods when touched or shaken and are hurled at distances exceeding 7 metres. The seeds, also carried by water, can remain viable for up to 2 years. Himalayan Balsam is an invasive species that has rapidly colonised river banks, excluding native species by competition and forcing some areas of the UK to introduce eradication policies.

We have waged war on the aggressive Himalayan Balsam plants growing on Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve for as long as I can remember. Our herd of rare breed Shetland and Belted Galloway cattle have proved very successful at keeping this invasive balsam in check. Our marsh volunteering group has not embarked on the backbreaking task of balsam pulling for many years. Still, Himalayan balsam thrives outside our boundary fencing, and it is our conservation cattle herd that ensures it has difficulty gaining a foothold in most marsh compartments. 

There is a 16.5 acres island on Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve that is strangled by Himalayan balsam every growing season because we do not have the means of getting the herd over the river to graze it. One day, a bridge might span the river and enable us to solve this grazing problem; for now, though, the Himalayan balsam reigns supreme on the island.

The Wyre Forest Grazing Animals Project, a partnership of the Ranger Service, Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, Natural England, and local land-owners, provide grazing animals to conservation sites across the district. The marsh herd has made a fantastic contribution to general land management and the control of Himalayan balsam on Wilden Marsh. It is now easy to move freely around all areas of Wilden Marsh. Before the cattle arrived, 2 to 3 metre high dense stands of Himalayan balsam dramatically impeded progress across the site. Desiccated white balsam stalks littered the marsh at the end of the growing season.


    • Thanks for your comment, Tom. I think nature conservation, in general, is getting more exposure than has been the case in the past. Talking about improving the environment is good, but positive action is better. Conservation grazing is certainly beneficial and a natural means of managing conservation land, when used correctly and sympathetically.


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