Winter Grazing at Hudswell Woods
It’s not just staff and volunteers who help look after Hudswell Woods – we also have at team of dedicated animal helpers! A key component of restoring our meadows and rough pasture here involves grassland management through the winter grazing of cattle and ponies.
Restoring the grasslands at Hudswell Woods has involved the reintroduction of light grazing with ponies and cattle. Managing vegetation with grazing has overcome the problem that much of the site is out of bounds to vehicle access for grassland management by machinery. By scheduling this grazing in the winter months we effectively replicate a hay meadow regime whereby grasses and flowers grow, flower, and set seed through the spring and summer. Then, instead of cutting a hay crop, which we are unable to do, we graze off the meadow with cattle or ponies. This also works well with our visitors as winter grazing minimises disruption to the high number of visitors that walk and picnic on the site during the summer months.
With plenty of rough grazing spread through riverside scrub and woodland, Hudswell Woods offers plenty of food and shelter for animals over the winter months. Left to its own devices the open grassland areas that are ideal for nectar loving insects would slowly be lost to scrub and then the early stages of woodland. There is nothing wrong with this natural progression but at Hudswell Woods we have decided to maintain our 10 hectares or so of open grassland, although where possible we actively promote a soft woodland edge. This is an increasingly rare habitat in the English countryside as more often than not woodlands are bordered by very definite hard boundaries such as paths, roads or heavily grazed fields. Allowing a more natural graded transition from grassland in to scrub and woodland promotes habitats favoured by many insects.
Much of our management attempts to replicate wilder processes. Allowing low numbers of stock to roam keeps our grassland areas open, and mirrors the effects of large wild herbivores moving through the landscape. Young trees and brambles are browsed whilst animal hooves open up and disturb the ground and push flower seed in to the earth. At Hudswell Woods a number of years passed with only occasional grazing and as a consequence a dense thatch built up. Made from dead grass and other organic matter this thatch was so thick that it prevented flower seed from reaching the soil. With an absence of grazing the vigorous coarse grasses swamped the meadows, out competing many of the weaker wild flower species. Grazing has reversed this situation, tussocks have been trampled and vigorous grass growth eaten; ground has been disturbed exposing bare earth, perfect for receiving and germinating flower seed. A greater diversity of flowers is slowly returning as the grassland responds to the dynamic influences associated with light grazing.
After five years of trying we finally have hardy breed cattle helping with our grassland restoration at Hudswell Woods. On a site with so much public access we were looking for a docile cattle breed so we chose Belted Galloways, and so far they have been excellent with walkers and dogs. Two previous winters of ponies grazing and constant communication of our grassland restoration plan (what we want to achieve, why we want to achieve it and how we are going to do it) has paid off, but it does help having cattle with such character.
Hopefully the Belties will be on site until early spring 2018, and the winter grazing arrangement will become a regular fixture. There is plenty for them to eat, and in particular we hope they will break up the tussocks and graze the strong grasses, all the time disturbing the ground with their feet and creating areas where flower seed can germinate. Over time we think that visitors will see the link between light cattle grazing and a healthy rough pasture rich in wild flowers.