CONSERVATION GRAZING OF HEATHLAND -RESPONSE TO LETTERS

Before anyone had seen a word of what I had written I was approached by three people high up in conservation (with whom I had never met or corresponded with before) telling me what to write and hoping I wouldn’t ‘rock the boat’. Clearly a raw nerve was exposed, but the paranoiac reaction seemed excessive, and it is troubling that so many felt all was hunky dory. The grazing revolution started at more or less the same time as British Wildlife was born, yet these pages are hardly strewn with great success stories, surely anyone with a proven positive would have been keen to publish and share? It came as no surprise that not one correspondent responded with positive input on the cost effectiveness argument.
I have long shared Trevor Beebee’s desire to see more extensive ‘blasted heath’, but at sites like our beloved Woolmer Forest the priority for creating such a landscape is the proven restoration method of pine plantation removal and scrape and seed. Examples of this are manifold and grazing has not been a necessary follow up at least in the medium term. Lack of space meant I did not mention the on-going Red Deer grazing scheme on the Pirbright Ranges in Surrey. I for one hope this is a success, and maybe one-day be extended to the landscape so splendidly described by Gilbert White. It seems eminently sensible to use our largest native herbivore especially one with such a proven track record of woodland suppression.
I regularly drive past extensive sandy areas (created by sand and gravel extraction) ideal for Natterjacks and the early seral stage specialists, which are crying out to be brought into conservation management. Targeting these areas rather than persisting with a dogged insistence in trying to turn the clock back at sites like Frensham Little Pond which now supports an extremely valuable reed and Carr assemblage, not just Reed Warblers. It is tragic that after 20 years of supposed positive mitigation for protected species legislation on development sites the length and breadth of the country have yielded so very little in terms of new areas of heath or anything else to offset the relentless spread of concrete.
In response to Keith Alexander, I agree and have no problem with well designed winter, spring and autumn ‘pulse’ grazing, indeed winter grazing with Hereford x Friesian crosses on Churt Flashes, Surrey was very effective at controlling pine up to 2m. However graziers are reluctant to winter graze in the more severe winter conditions which prevail away from Cornwall. I do however firmly believe that no grazing is better than bad grazing especially on small sites. His points about the details of the Vera model are not the issue. I believe the theory has considerable merit, however it was taken by many as a green light to trust to luck with grazing, believing ‘nature will find a way’. It is hard to believe anyone would seriously have contemplated removing the fences around Holmsley and Wootton Enclosures had it not been for the sheer fashionability of Vera at the time. His theory appealed (especially to many of the fresh faces coming into heathland management posts, and dare one add people in NE (keen to appease the politicians) who could hijack it to justify the condition assessment fudge) rather in the way the 1970s trend for viewing the native American tribes on the plains as ‘living in harmony’ which was far from realistic! It is human nature to favour methods which reduce hard graft, after all who could disagree that driving around counting cows is more appealing than slogging away cutting down trees? It is telling that Vera’s works are cited many more times in the conservation literature than the academic.
Several respondents have expressed concern that my article could result in ‘the baby being thrown out with the bathwater’, and remember how hard it was in the early days to get site owners to countenance grazing (something with which I was actively involved and remember well), and didn’t want to have to start again. I do not think there is any danger of this, and it cannot be an excuse for grazing for grazing’s sake.
I have been involved with herptile politics for far too long to reignite the in-house fighting, but reiterate that on dry heath sites with good reptile population grazing simply isn’t worth risking. On more extensive humid heaths the jury is still out and on-going research may help clarify the situation. I can confirm that extremely heavy high density cattle grazing did indeed help juvenile Natterjacks but at the other end of the enclosure the effects on the mature humid heath were far from desirable!
As for the New Forest, the invertebrate fauna over large tracts may be stable, over others it is extremely depauperate, but is Clive Chatters saying that the likes of Alan Stubbs (with 5 decades worth of collecting experience in the Forest) is deluded? On top of the catastrophic decline of many of the butterflies for which the place was once legendary, are we still in denial that over grazing is not an issue? Yes some butterflies are in free fall despite what would appear to be positive management, but the sheer size of the New Forest should have buffered the worst effects. Not rhetoric, just an inconvenient truth!
To say that the Holmsley and Wootton Enclosure example ‘does little to illuminate heathland restoration’ is astonishing! If the fences had been removed, both enclosures would have been thrown in with the surrounding heathland grazing regime, so I believe it is highly pertinent to the issues discussed. The trespass grazing was necessary and helpful as I point out (hardly an anti-grazing stance!), but the removal of the fencing which had been advocated ( and the critical protection against over grazing it provided) was a threat to the survival of some of the last populations of species (including plants) manifestly in decline in the New Forest. In this way the enclosures act as substantial exclosures (something worryingly absent or hopelessly inadequate for most grazing schemes) which enable us to see what is being suppressed by grazing (and for that matter the obverse of scrub/woodland development). My view expressed at the time that removing the fences would be an act of crass stupidity is endorsed by some of the greatest entomologists in the land. In hindsight I was far too diplomatic listing the likely impacts of moderate summer grazing on the scarce inverts. I would encourage the reader to look again at the original photo (page 340) and make up their own minds as to the likely effect on the fauna (and flora) present if subjected to the severe grazing pressure on the surrounding heath. They may conclude as I do that it would have been too much for most of the species listed! Yes fences are ugly, but if that is what it takes to keep species from local extinction then what is wrong with having different grazing densities in different areas, it is no more unnatural than grazing with domestic animals. There is no consistency: I was appalled to see hideous permanent fences going up across Dry Sandford Pit, a small site in modern Oxfordshire in the name of targeting key habitats.
Many of the sites coming into grazing in Surrey and North Hampshire are structurally very similar to those within these enclosures, sites which in many cases already possess rich assemblages including heathland BAP species, after a century without grazing. Without thorough comparison of the relative values of these assemblages we may well be robbing Peter to pay Paul just to satisfy condition assessment criteria! Indeed my concerns extend to other habitats, and the rush to re-establish grazing in pasture woodlands is currently also a very great cause for concern, as the grazing pressure has already had a very marked effect on structural diversity at sites like Burnham Beeches, and parts of Windsor Forest.
NE kindly invited me down to Dorset to look at the impacts of grazing there, including several of the sites which Andy Byfield eludes too. On the humid heath at least, I saw nothing negative and only positives from the grazing there: just floristically and entomologically rich sites. However extrapolation from these well studied, extensive grazing schemes is somewhat misleading. For reasons beyond me the Poole Basin heaths do not have a serious birch problem (see fig 1), thus grazing densities can remain low with clear benefit in terms of Molinia control, and mosaic creation (and Sika deer are something of a joker in the pack). However in my area (Surrey and North Hampshire) birch is the chronic problem,

Fig 1. Exclosure on Hartland Moor after 20 years of grazing: No birch scrub at all even in the absence of grazing, despite a seed source in close proximity.

and grazing far more difficult to balance. Trying to increase overall floristic diversity is often dependent on exposing an existing viable seed bank, or more likely, through colonisation from other sites. In a fragmented landscape, without some intervention the goal of seeing many of the key species return too many sites may require considerable patience, or simply remain a pipe dream. The botanical evidence is strongly supportive of grazing, but in a world where the threat of invasive species grows daily, the goal of bringing back lost species, could well be outweighed by losses through stock spreading problem taxa such as Crassula helmsii.
 Andy Byfield’s assertion that grazing is ‘essential for plants and much else’ is unsustainable. It may be for a few plants, but a look through the 2002 Plant Atlas shows that after 80-100 years without grazing (except by Rabbits) only 4 native vascular plants became extinct on the heaths in my area, (the same number as in the continually grazed New Forest). The same heaths support more species of bee, wasp, spider, herptiles etc., than the later! This is an academic point of logic, not an anti-grazing stance. I support sensible grazing but am not willing to exaggerate the case for grazing as essential, when it is not on many sites, especially on dry heaths where fire is critical and will happen with increasing frequency as public pressure increases.
Many species have declined because of the cessation of other large scale activities such as bracken and birch harvesting, turf stripping, and no-one seems to even consider the ending of peat cutting (which created many of our most important water bodies) for which there is considerable well documented evidence! All these activities create localised effects with clear edges, and it is these edges that so many specialists require, heavy grazing leads to (for want of better word) blandification. The vast majority of ponds on heathland are man-made, and the creation of a pond or two on many of my local sites would bring back far more heath species than grazing at a fraction of the cost of even the fencing. That I am ‘misguided’ in implying that grazing is principally for tree encroachment, is somewhat revisionist to say the least! Every interpretation board I have seen explaining to the public why their local site is being grazed has ‘control of tree and scrub encroachment’ at the top! I sat in many meeting where this was exactly what was promised to the MoD, who haven’t forgotten!
For most of the small sites being grazed there just isn’t space to eliminate the problems affecting the vastly more species rich fauna that over- grazing can have. If you live on the only stand of alder buckthorn, aspen, or live in the only Sphagnum pool etc., it is unlikely your ‘grazing tolerance’ will be much help! Outcome: you lose several rare species in the pursuit of attempting to bring back commoner albeit declining plants, or worse still, simply to appease politicians!
I reiterate that the correct timing and stock type are critical, and it is in this area that more research and a much more imaginative and diverse approach is needed. Above all I believe there is no doubt that there is need for further research and a couple of PhD level studies is required as a minimum, before we continue trusting to luck, and placing some of our last great wildlife havens in the hands of cowherds with little knowledge, working from management plans which completely neglect even the basic invertebrate assemblages needs.
Finally thanks to all the many people who took time to respond: whatever the arguments it is indeed encouraging that so many still care!

 

2 thoughts on “CONSERVATION GRAZING OF HEATHLAND -RESPONSE TO LETTERS

  1. simon pudge

    Given all the public money which goes into English Nature and wildlife trusts, it seems surprising that nobody seems to know how best maintain heathland and heather habitats, particularly in relation to the obvious need to control invasive species such as bracken and birch. Our local Chapel Common near Liphook did not have a problem with these species in the past when wild deer commonly grazed and nobody “managed” the common. However, a fence was put round the common about 10yrs ago, it became managed, ragwort was “weed wiped”, highland cattle were installed and dog walkers started to increase. Sadly the heather is now steadily being smothered by birch and bracken. I find it hard to believe this is a coincidence. My own suspicion is that grazing by wild deer is the main cause ?

    Reply
    1. jonty Post author

      So do you think restricting the deer has lead to increased birch/bracken problem? Sounds like the cattle arent helping the heather??

      Reply

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