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.

The Herd is Back in Hoo Brook Pasture

I managed to get the herd back into Hoo Brook Pasture yesterday, without having to call in the Rangers to help out, following the teenager incident on Tuesday night; it took me three days to do it though. When the cattle slipped out of the corral for their early morning drink in Hoo Brook Corridor, I slipped in and closed the gate on them – as simple as that!

I tried many things to entice them back into Hoo Brook Pasture, but the cattle are not stupid and were well aware of what I was trying to do. For once, the herd held the upper hand and ran rings around me – literally! It was inevitable, though, that I would overcome in the end.

I was cutting thistles in Hoo Brook Pasture yesterday, with two other Wilden Marshers, in baking heat. The cattle walked silently past us and hid out of sight in amongst the trees, at the east end of the pasture, and we saw neither hide nor hair of them all day. The presence of two strangers unsettled them. After a hard day’s work slashing thistles, we walked out of the pasture, up the ramp, and into the corral. As soon as the cattle heard the corral gate being locked they appeared, excitedly mooing and bellowing, to reclaim their ground. The teenager incident has certainly affected them. When I am working the pasture on my own, the cattle are usually milling around and getting in the way. Cattle are not the dumb animals some people make them out to be, and they should not be treated as such. When working around cattle for any length of time, it soon becomes apparent that they have admirable sensibilities, and deep feelings for others of their herd. I think cattle react depending on how they are treated. Cattle have friendships, they groom each other, they have their special ways of doing things, and they are creatures of habit. All the marsh cattle are sensitive to me – I don’t think I have enemies within the herd. Waynetta is particularly protective of me, as she is of the calves.

Once again, harmony reigns on the north marsh.

The Himalayan Balsam Scourge Begins Again (3 images)

Himalayan Balsam is poking its leaves above ground now; the marsh cattle will soon be feasting on this very prolific and invasive plant.

In the UK, the Himalayan Balsam plant was first introduced in 1839 at the same time as Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed. These plants were all promoted at the time as having the virtues of “herculean proportions” and “splendid invasiveness” which meant that ordinary people could buy them for the cost of a packet of seeds to rival the expensive orchids grown in the greenhouses of the rich. Within ten years, however, Himalayan balsam had escaped from the confines of cultivation and begun to spread along the river systems of England. Today it has spread across most of the UK and some local wildlife trusts organise “balsam bashing” events to help control the plant. However, a recent study (Hejda & Pyšek, 2006) concludes that in some circumstances, such efforts may cause more harm than good. Destroying riparian stands of Himalayan Balsam can open up the habitat for more aggressive invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed and aid in seed dispersal (by dropped seeds sticking to shoes). Riparian habitat is suboptimal for I. glandulifera, and spring or autumn flooding destroys seeds and plants. The research suggests that the optimal way to control the spread of riparian Himalayan Balsam is to decrease eutrophication, thereby permitting the better-adapted local vegetation that gets outgrown by the balsam on watercourses with high nutrient load to rebound naturally. They caution that these conclusions probably do not hold true for stands of the plant at forest edges and meadow habitats, where manual destruction is still the best approach. (Source Wikipedia)


Himalayan Balsam


Himalayan Balsam


Himalayan Balsam

Himalayan balsam control: The cattle are soldiering on.

Sunrise: 05.00 Sunset: 09.28


Shetland Cow Eating Himalayan Balsam at Wilden Marsh.

The cattle are doing a great job, but they are not clearing the Himalayan balsam in Hoo Brook Pasture as quickly as expected. I think the problem is the high rate of balsam growth –  now 12 to 15 feet tall with 3″to 4″ diametre stalks, in places. Also, new balsam shoots are growing vigorously from the bare earth shaded by the earlier balsam growth. So the cattle are pulling down and eating huge swathes of  this fast growing green menace, whilst grazing the new growth. I think the cattle might also be wandering about in the Swamp – the pasture gate is left open to allow them access to the Swamp for drinking water.

The area looks a little like a bomb site with 3 foot tall clumps of leafless part-eaten stalks all over the place.

It’s important that the cattle finish the job before the balsam seeds are fully formed.