Round 'em up

Cow girl Lisa Hawthornthwaite with Ossie. © Maurice Flynn

Cow girl Lisa Hawthornthwaite with Ossie.

Studland, Dorset

In the summer of 2008, our search for wannabe cowboys and cowgirls on Studland in Dorset attracted national and international attention.

Applications from the New Forest in Hampshire to as far afield as the ranches of South America flew in.

Here, our chosen cowgirl, Lisa Hawthornthwaite, tells us how she came to be selected, and what her job involves.

"I heard about it on the radio and thought it sounded crazy," admitted Lisa. "Then the more I heard, the more I thought hang on, that really sounds like me."

Lambs sleeping in the dog’s bed
"I have spent my whole life playing with animals, horses, cows, sheep, dogs; anything with one eye or three legs was always welcome at my home. I think it was pet lambs in the kitchen, sleeping in the dog bed, which was the last straw for my mother," she said.

Lisa Hawthornthwaite, aged 30, moved to Dorset eight years ago from Lancashire, where she had studied at an agricultural college. She has a clear love of the outdoors in her blood, a strong background in livestock farming and is also a keen horse rider.

"While it wasn’t vital that the new person should ride, we thought it would be a huge benefit," said David Hodd, Countryside Manager.

"We’re using a herd to sensitively graze the heathland, so if we can also reduce the use of vehicles that will be an obvious help. It also means that anywhere the cows can go on four legs, Lisa can follow on her horse," he said.

Like a giant Shetland pony
Lisa's 'company horse' is Ossie, a five-year-old Highland pony.

"Our second ride out was on the same day as the army was blowing up bombs found from the war on Studland beach," said Lisa. "The ground shook and Ossie's attitude was 'What bomb?'. I couldn't believe it."

"Highland ponies are fantastic working animals and he just takes the world in his stride. I would hate to say it but he is like a giant Shetland pony - so cheeky, a little bit stubborn but very loveable," she said.

Preserving the diversity
Lisa and Ossie will be moving a herd of Red Devon cattle around the heath throughout the year, in all weathers.

This conservation grazing is a vital way of preserving the diversity of plant life and wildlife found on Purbeck, which is a 10km-stretch of heathland that boasts more plant species than any other part of the UK.

Cattle prevent the heathland from becoming overgrown with trees. Without grazing animals, the heath would eventually lose most of its rare wildlife, and become a more mundane birch, willow and pine woodland.

Lisa's appointment helps revive a tradition which died out on the heath more than 200 years ago.

An exciting project
"This is an exciting project to trial in the UK," said David Hodd. "The practice still exists in Eastern Europe, and indeed in parts of Holland. We want to see whether this can be successfully replicated here.

"It will allow the internationally important Nature Reserve at Studland to get the on-going care that it needs."

"Trialling grazing methods like this is very much what the National Nature Reserves were created for," Hodd added. "They were intended to be outdoor laboratories for experimenting with conservation management techniques, to see what works best to protect and encourage our wildlife and nature."

"The advantage of this approach is that as well as increasing grazing, there’ll be someone with the animals at all times, so if anyone has questions about the animals or Studland generally, there is someone around to help."

Ride 'em cowgirl!
Lisa’s role may sound like fun, but it has a serious conservation purpose – following in the footsteps of much work already done in the area. Here’s why:

  • Studland and Godlingston Heath have just about every conservation designation available.
  • The 750 hectares includes lowland heath, one of three lowland low-nutrient lakes (Littlesea) and 40 per cent of all Dune Heath in England.
  • The site is particularly famous for Dartford Warblers, Sand Lizards and Smooth Snakes, which particularly enjoy dining on… Sand Lizards.
  • A designated naturist area attracting 30,000 visitors a day at peak season
  • The Purbeck Golf Club (owned by the Trust) adjoining the reserve was once owned by Enid Blyton.
  • Lisa’s work will enable Studland Heath and its dunes to be grazed for the first time since the 1930s. Cyril Diver’s work at Studland in the 1930s was one of the earliest whole ecosystem accounts in the study of Ecology.
  • The dunes have built up since 1586. Most are at severe risk from sea level rise, along with the Trust’s beach facilities.