Girls in May

Conservation grazing encourages wildflowers to grow

Bluebell, Burdock and Bramble, Vetch and stately Widecombe Dale…these five grand old ladies of the Belted Galloway breed have retired to the gentle slopes of May Hill, and are enjoying their twilight years in peace and harmony.

Not only are they soaking up the panoramic view out over the Black Mountains to the west and the River Severn to the east, but they have the constant attention of a wonderful band of volunteer ‘cow checkers’. Every day these dedicated followers of our darling May girls walk the iconic hillside to check they are ok and have enough food and water – especially Widecombe Dale, who’s the oldest at 16 years.

Beautiful views from May Hill
Beautiful views from May Hill

Belted Galloways

You’d think it would be easy to spot a Beltie with its black body and big white stripe, but the cows seem to slip from view in the folds of the hillside, and when the mists come down it’s a real game of hide and seek.

Volunteers Rob and Gillian Guest have been keeping an eye on the cows for 10 years, and are also true devotees of May Hill. Over the years they’ve painstakingly surveyed and mapped the hillside, discovering the sites of old charcoal hearths, dwellings and dip wells.

Belted Galloway cattle in the mist on May Hill
Belted Galloway cattle in the mist on May Hill

Thriving Plant Life

Unlike the sheep that used to graze here, Belties crop the grass less hard and so encourage more delicate plants and herbs to thrive, which in turn helps the wildlife.

Rob and Gillian have noted more and more patches of heather appearing, and this year the welcome appearance of breeding stonechats. Their list goes on – on the butterfly front, the first record of grizzled skippers in this part of Gloucestershire two years ago, and green hairstreaks on the sunny yellow gorse.

" I spent my working life in forestry, and now Gillian and I feel very much part of the good work being done to protect the plants, animals and historic sites of this unique place. Good boots and binoculars, and a little patience, are all you need to bring May Hill to life."
- Rob Guest, National Trust volunteer

Area Ranger Laura Riley adds, “I love to be with the birds up on the hill, and from here you can actually appreciate the difference we, and of course our delightful cows, are making. It’s tangible work in progress, on a landscape scale.”

The only thing that might upset the peace is the arrival of a gang of frisky Beltie youngsters, on a summer break.