Farming and conservation

Red Devon cattle on Studland Heath

One of the key methods we use to look after the precious habitats of Purbeck is grazing by cattle, including our own herd of red Devons.

In doing this we are following a tradition that stretches back to the origins of farming in Britain.

For thousands of years, people farmed animals in ways that created varied landscapes rich in wildlife. Cattle could wander freely over large areas of heathland and sheep were shepherded on the wide slopes of chalk downland. 

As they grazed they created diverse plant communities by removing the more competitive trees and scrub, which in turn supported more insects, mammals and birds.

Fragile

In the last hundred years this extensive form of animal farming has gradually been supplanted by intensive systems that seek to maximise economic productivity. Animal farming largely stopped on the less fertile heathlands and downland, allowing scrub to smoother the fragile plant communities.

Recently we have re-introduced traditional farming on the Purbeck heaths and have worked with our tenants to establish similar systems on the chalk ridge and coastal limestone grasslands.

Herefords are one of the traditional breeds which graze the limestone grasslands of south Purbeck
A Hereford cow looking over a dry stone wall in south Purbeck

At Hartland and Godlingston Heaths our red Devon cattle freely graze a heathland landscape that would be familiar to Thomas Hardy – a timeless wildlife-rich wilderness. 

More recently still, we have begun extending our conservation grazing programme to areas of Studland Heath where cattle last roamed in the 1930s.

Here we are using fences to create temporary grazing units for small numbers of cattle because the busy Ferry Road makes it impractical to allow them to wander freely.

The grazing units are moved periodically as they are exhausted and our ecologists are monitoring the effect they have on the heathland. 

Tough

Heathland can be a tough environment for cattle - the food plants are generally of poor nutritional value and water sources can be far apart. 

The Red Devon cow was bred for the rough pastures of Exmoor, so are ideally suited to thrive on the heaths of Dorset.